October 24, 2016
Focus: Outstanding women in business

Julie Crowley: From top to bottom, getting it done

Developing a workforce to meet an industry's needs is a matter of seeing the world from multiple perspectives. How can a young mother returning to work after a long spell of unemployment gain confidence, make decent money and balance a career and family? What does a manufacturer adopting new high-tech production techniques need to get the work done on time by capable hands? How can teachers and state agencies and transportation systems help bring the worker and employer together?

Julie Crowley -- the regional project manager for the Advanced Manufacturing, Mechatronics and Quality Consortium at Mount Wachusett Community College in Devens -- deals with these kinds of questions on a daily basis.

"She can go from a Beacon Hill meeting with legislators to two minutes later speaking with a student who's facing challenges," said Jacqueline Belrose, vice president of lifelong learning and workforce development at Mount Wachusett Community College. "She's just able to relate to people, and people feel that."

Like many of the students she works with, Crowley took a winding route into her career. After high school, she worked at a manufacturing firm for five years, got married and started a family before returning to college in her early 30s. When she first got hired at Mount Wachusett, teaching English language learners and GED students, she sought out mother's hours, but she advanced quickly to program assistant, then program coordinator and later director of the school's Devens campus. Even when she was officially part-time, Crowley said, she often ended up working more than 40 hours a week, supported by a husband who picked up the slack at home and buoyed by the importance of the work she was doing.

"With very few resources, we had to achieve great outcomes," she said.

Building a new pathway

Belrose said Crowley consistently dives into her work with dedication.

"You know there's always that one person that if you need a volunteer, they volunteer, and if they lead a project, they can inspire people to get things done?" Belrose said. "That's who she is."

In 2013, Mount Wachusett led the creation of the Advanced Manufacturing, Mechatronics and Quality Consortium, which received $16 million for manufacturing training efforts. Crowley took on her current role, working with a board of local industry leaders to develop a curriculum around quality and mechatronics, or mechanical engineering. Over the past three years, about 300 students have taken credit and noncredit classes through the program.

The courses are developed so that students can train for anywhere from two weeks to two years, Crowley said. Depending on their needs, some go through a quick training program, jump into a job and then return to school for further education to take the next step.

"The whole idea is to build a pathway," Crowley said.

Finding solutions for students and employers

Along with technical skills, the AMMQC program focuses on helping students address obstacles that may be keeping them from work. The program environment is designed to mirror a workplace, with a focus on punctuality and soft skills like communication.

"We want to make sure that they can go into any company, not just one job," Crowley said.

As a community college, Mount Wachusett has always had a focus on helping students with particular challenges in finding a good job, whether they speak limited English, have heavy family responsibilities or have gaps in their education and work histories. Crowley said the college has worked consistently with local transportation authorities to make it easier for students to commute by bus or train. Sometimes, staff even assist students in arranging carpools.

"That is definitely a top issue in this region, and we are working to find solutions," she said.

Lately, Crowley said, the opioid epidemic has become a serious impediment for some potential workers. She said the college actively works to help people who have gotten in trouble for drug-related offenses to move on with their lives.

"Often a student in drug court has gone through an intensive period keeping clean," she said. "Once drug court's over, you want them to have something they're building on while their momentum is moving forward."

Making time for frogs

Bringing workers into the labor force is a boon for local employers like the high-tech manufacturers that AMMQC works with. Given the current low unemployment rate, qualified workers are in high demand.

It's been a long time since Crowley arrived at Mount Wachusett to do a job with limited hours. Today, her children are grown. Thanks partly to the flexibility her job offers, she can take time frogging and fishing with her two grandsons, ages 6 and 8. Sometimes she brings them to the college to check out a collection of sea urchins.

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