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Two centuries ago, the Blackstone Valley region served as a cornerstone of industrial development in the U.S., with some of the country’s first mills and factories sending their goods up and down the valley’s canals between the burgeoning cities of Worcester and Providence.
Now, Jeannie Hebert is hoping to keep that manufacturing spirit alive and well in the region.
“The Blackstone Valley is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution,” said Hebert. “Manufacturing is our whole background.”
Hebert serves as the president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, which serves Massachusetts businesses located in towns between Worcester and Providence, such as Millbury, Sutton, and Northbridge. She has worked for the chamber since 2008, having previously worked in marketing at the Central Massachusetts Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A member of the family behind the Shrewsbury-based Hebert Candies, she was well-versed in the manufacturing business before taking on the role. As president and CEO, Hebert has focused the chamber’s efforts on ensuring the area’s manufacturers are able to acquire workers with the necessary skills needed to succeed in today’s economy.
“My involvement began to grow when we were getting more and more reports from our manufacturers that they were unable to obtain skilled employees,” said Hebert. “They were able to fill extra shifts, they had the workforce, but the skills just weren’t there.”
Though the region has its own vocational school, the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, Hebert discovered many of the students were choosing to attend college instead of entering the workforce with the skills they had been trained on.
To remedy the situation, Hebert worked with local legislators to secure a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education to found the Blackstone Valley Education Hub in 2018, which trains students to get certification in skills like welding and regulatory safety.
The educational hub works with other organizations like the Grafton Job Corps Center and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office to help adults who are in need of acquiring job skills, such as those recently released from prison trying to enter employment.
“They blow me away with their skills, their ambition, what they do, their knowledge,” she said of students. “It’s just amazing, and we’re changing lives.”
Hebert hopes to continue educating the next generation of workers and helping more women enter the manufacturing industry.
“Some of our students are women now, though they are in the minority,” she said. “But we are promoting women in trades. It’s a great job. You can make great money, and if you have the aptitude, never work another day in your life, because it’s fun.”
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