Smiths Medical

Smiths Medical frontline workers assemble hypodermic needles that may be used to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine.

When Marcello Hart first heard about a new apprenticeship program at Smiths Medical in Keene, where he has worked for the past eight-and-a-half years, he thought it sounded like a good opportunity to advance in his career.

“The main purpose was just to better myself and help better the company,” said Hart, a 32-year-old Keene native. “And in doing so, getting that higher level of education was the next step in what I needed to progress.”

Hart, who works as a line technician responsible for maintenance on Smiths Medical’s automated equipment, is one of two members of the inaugural cohort of the new program, which launched in January in collaboration with ApprenticeshipNH, an initiative run through the Community College System of New Hampshire. The two-year apprenticeship combines on-the-job training with classes at Keene State College and Nashua Community College, and pairs apprentices with mentors at their company.

At the end of the apprenticeship, Hart will get a promotion to a new role, and a raise, in addition to the skills he’s already developing through his classes. These new skills include an enhanced understanding of the design of the machines he works with, which helps him better anticipate what will cause them to wear over time, Hart said.

“I’m very committed to this company and working for this company. I see my future being here at Smiths Medical,” he said. “And in order to grow myself as an employee, education is very big and very important for that.”

This, ultimately, is the goal of apprenticeship programs, according to Emily Zeien, the grant manager for ApprenticeshipNH, which started in 2017 and is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Since then, ApprenticeshipNH has worked with companies statewide to launch 74 apprenticeship programs that have enrolled a total of 296 people, Zeien said.

For each of these programs, ApprenticeshipNH works with employers — primarily in industries such as advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology — to design customized curricula with local colleges to meet the needs of those companies.

“So the two components really complement each other in that sense,” Zeien said. “[Apprentices] spend time in the traditional classroom setting, learning the competency and the technical skill that relates to the job, and then they have an opportunity to actually apply it day to day through on-the-job training.”

For Smiths Medical, a Minneapolis-based medical supplies producer that employs about 360 people in Keene, the apprenticeship program provides a valuable workforce development tool, according to Jonathan Tomachick, the engineering manager at the company’s Keene facility at 10 Bowman Drive, off of Route 12.

“We wanted to develop the pool of talent and provide career steppingstones for our current employees,” Tomachick said in a news release from the company. “It’s difficult to find people with engineer-level skills. The ApprenticeshipNH team helped us envision how we could build and scale a program that will provide these employees with invaluable, cutting edge engineering skills that will lead to growth and supervisory opportunities and a pathway to earn a college degree over the longer term.”

Smiths Medical — whose Keene facility is focused on assembly and packaging of blood sampling devices and syringes for injection, including U.S. government contracts for COVID-19 vaccines — plans to enroll another two to five apprentices in the program beginning in September.

“They’re starting small, but really see it as a future tool for the company to grow their workforce and provide opportunities to other employees in the future,” said Zeien, who added that Smiths Medical and ApprenticeshipNH cover the cost of tuition for the apprenticeship classes.

Overall, Zeien said apprenticeships like the new program at Smiths Medical help companies find the workers they need to continue to grow in New Hampshire.

“With all of the employers that we’ve been able to work with through the program, I think the collective challenge they have is that they have open positions within their company that require some level of skill and experience beyond just your entry-level position that you may hire for,” she said. “And the challenge that those businesses face is just that there aren’t enough job-seekers in their communities who have the skill and experience to do those jobs.”

Programs like this — and similar ApprenticeshipNH partnerships with Teleflex Medical in Jaffrey and N.H. Ball Bearings in Peterborough — address that challenge by providing additional training and education while people continue to work, she added.

Steve Fortier, the interim executive director of the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., said apprenticeships like this can play a critical role in bolstering the local workforce.

“Anything we can do to build the pipeline of keeping people here that are providing great value to their companies and their communities, is good,” he said. “... One of the unique things about the region, I think, is that people love to live here — the recreational opportunities, the arts and culture opportunities. But we all need opportunities to grow, so kudos to any company like Smiths that provides those opportunities.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.