Steve Frank

Steve Frank, 59, of Atkinson works with young people in a class for the microelectronics boot camp program at Nashua Community College last week.

NASHUA — After living without health insurance and facing eviction, Jacqueline Gagnon earned a second chance.

The Nashua woman graduated from a microelectronics boot camp in June — funded by $5,500 in federal money — and was hired to start a job mid-September at SemiGen, a defense contractor that manufactures microwave modules and components.

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Gagnon was part of a mature-worker training program funded by the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

But what appeared like a win-win turned into a cautionary tale of playing matchmaker between employer and job seeker.

Gagnon, whose previous jobs included working in shipping, assembly and quality control, had largely been out of work for the past 14 months and was eager to start a full-time job with health benefits.

“Something definitely spiritual has happened to me” getting this job, Gagnon, 56, said three days before starting at SemiGen. “I’ve been out of work so long and facing eviction.”

But two weeks after starting there, she was let go.

“What will I do now?” she said in a brief phone interview last week. “Look for another job. What else can I do?”

The U.S. Department of Labor offered the two-year pilot program to the state’s Department of Business and Economic Affairs. It also came with $975,000 in federal funds.

The program, which started last year, helps those 55 and older who are unemployed and meet income criteria to be trained for a job.

But the training and financial incentives to her employer weren’t enough to save Gagnon.

“Company policy and our desire to protect the privacy of every employee prevents us from discussing an individual past or present employee’s history with the company, but SemiGen fully supports the mature worker program and other programs to bring nontraditional employees into our hi-tech workplace,” SemiGen CEO James Morgan said in an email.

“The state’s low unemployment levels may force us to better vet our hires within this program to assure the skill set foundation is in place and that the applicant has the necessary attention to detail that is required when handling very sensitive military devices,” Morgan said.

The program has received more than 120 applicants, with 27 people accepted and eight so far getting jobs, according to a recent count.

Participants have landed at manufacturing companies in Manchester and Portsmouth and at least one Manchester restaurant.

“Re-employment, not retirement,” said A.J. Lambert, project manager for the job training placement program.

Program participants also were offered the opportunity to attend AARP workshops on smart strategies for 50-plus job seekers.

State residents have benefited from other worker-training funds through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in recent years. Southern New Hampshire Services has been contracted by the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, Office of Workforce Opportunity to serve as the local program administrator.

“Over the past five years, the WIOA program has placed over 500 people into on-the-job training opportunities with hundreds of New Hampshire companies who appreciate and value the skills and experience these workers bring to the job,” said Patte Ardizzoni, SNHS’s communications director.

Steve Frank

Steve Frank, 59, of Atkinson works with electronics under a microscope during the microelectronics bootcamp program at Nashua Community College in Nashua last week.

Boot camp classes

In the same classroom where Gagnon studied, Steve Frank, 59, of Atkinson last week was in the third week of his boot camp.

He left his job as a mechanic at a bowling alley in February and said he couldn’t work for around four months while recovering from a knee injury. He had previous experience in microelectronics when working at Lucent Technologies in North Andover, Mass., more than a decade ago.

“This is probably 10 times smaller than the stuff I worked on back then,” Frank said.

His task that day included looking through an optical microscope while he soldered a piece of wire thinner than a human hair to gold plating on one side of a ceramic square.

The boot camp has a 94% success rate of placing graduates in a job in the field of study within the first three months. Asked about his own chances, Frank said: “At this point, after two weeks, I’d say 60-40 (percent yes) … . There’s a lot more to learn.”

Lambert said he isn’t sure whether money for the mature worker program will be renewed next year.

“It’s to get people who are 55-plus who aren’t working and they want to get back into the labor force,” Lambert said.

As for Gagnon, a few groups, including Southern New Hampshire Services, have helped her pay her rent in the meantime.

Before starting the SemiGen job, Gagnon said: “You have to keep doing what you need to do to survive.”

Gagnon said she didn’t think she received sufficient training after starting and noted that SemiGen was slated to receive on-the-job training funds from the program.

SemiGen stood to receive $2,000 after Gagnon was there for two months and another $2,000 after eight months on the job.

Lambert said it “probably would have been pretty tough” for her to get the job on her own at SemiGen. The program tries to “fill some of the skills gap,” he said.

What happened at SemiGen “doesn’t portray the person I knew,” Lambert said. “We’re still going to work with her and try to find her” a job.

Boot camp instructor Jim Flis, who taught Gagnon at Nashua Community College, said she struggled early on. But by the end of the 10-week bootcamp, Flis said, “There wasn’t anything she was lacking in.”

“This is a very foreign environment” for just about everybody who comes in, he said.

The training, Gagnon said, “definitely helped me land a better paying job.”

After Gagnon’s experience, Lambert said: “If anything, we may vet situations out ourselves a little more strongly to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Cape Cod program

For decades on Cape Cod, people age 55 and older could get assistance from a mature worker program administered by Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands. This provides funding for part-time work, according to Laura Roskos, who heads the Senior Community Service Employment Program, previously the mature worker program.

“The program is particularly helpful for people who have been long-term unemployed or out of the workforce for a long time,” Roskos said in a phone interview from South Dennis, Mass.

“This is structured as entirely on-the-job training,” she said. “Someone comes in and we try to match them with a need of a local nonprofit or municipal agency. We pay their wages while they work for 20 hours a week.”

Her clients work an average of 18 months under the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor through the nonprofit Senior Service America.

People may go to work at a town hall and an employee there will train them in a sophisticated computer program. “It’s a bridge to re-employment,” Roskos said.

“We know most of the time people get their jobs through word of mouth,” so being “hooked into the workforce” will increase people’s chances of finding a better job to transition to eventually, she said.

If someone doesn’t succeed at a job, “my job is to find them another one,” Roskos said.

“It’s a fairly rare occurrence,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s the person can’t do what’s required. Sometimes, it’s the supervisors can’t do what’s required. Usually, I try to handle it in a way that’s blame-free.”

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What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education.

Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.

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