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GWB Industry Partner Report:
Having “Manned Up,” Youth Skills up through New England Tech Program

“Unforgiving” is how Justin Palavra describes the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine he operates at work. Just a few years ago, it’s a word that might also have applied to the path he was following — and likely leading to a dead end.

With the guidance of a few key people, however, Palavra chose a different path. It’s since taken him on a straight line to success.
Justin Palavra operates a CNC lathe at  RI Carbide in Smithfield RI.
Justin Palavra operates a CNC lathe at
Rhode Island Carbide in Smithfield, RI.

One of those people is Rhonda Price, whose 20 years of experience in the RI court system gave her the intuition to spot a diamond in the rough. She spotted one in Palavra, who she first saw a few years ago shooting baskets at a community center where she served as executive director. Price had founded an organization called “Man Up,” which offers a lifeline of services to young men who want to turn their lives around but face major obstacles doing so.

The 6-foot-7-inch tall Palavra had been recruited by Providence Country Day School for his basketball skills and smarts, but had become sidetracked by hanging around with the wrong kids and getting into trouble.

He listened to Price’s plans for the Man Up program, but that’s where it ended. “When you’re ready to man up, let me know,” she told him.

Less than a year later, that’s exactly what Palavra did. “That was a happy day!” Price said. “Justin was ready. I knew right from the start which program I wanted to match him with. New England Tech would be a perfect fit.”

Palavra’s next step was New England Tech’s Ship Building and Marine Advanced Manufacturing Institute (SAMI), funded by the US Department of Labor, Governor’s Workforce Board and Rhode Island Foundation. Helmed by Fred Santaniello, SAMI takes unemployed Rhode Islanders through an intense regimen of hands-on and classroom education.

“They enter the job market as skilled welders and machinists, fully qualified to hit the ground running,” said Santaniello. “Ninety percent of our graduates are working, not just for big companies like Electric Boat, but for so many smaller shops that are desperate for skilled people.”

Impressed with Palavra’s personable manner, Santaniello quickly became a mentor. “We found out that he’s really smart and picks up quickly,” Santaniello said. “I was very straightforward with him, and made sure he knew what a huge opportunity he was being given. Justin got it.”

The SAMI curriculum exposes students to both the welding and machinist programs, to help them make more informed career choices. At first Palavra entered the SAMI welding program, but soon felt drawn to the machinist program.

“Everything you look at has to do with machinery,” he said. “Every job is different. Even the beginning stages of evaluating a job aren’t boring. You have to use lots of different skills, including math.” After eight weeks of enthusiastic participation, Palavra finished his training. “I loved going through the SAMI program. I gave it my all.”

Companies like Smithfield-based Rhode Island Carbide offer a perfect match for the job-specific skills taught in the SAMI program. Owner John Lombari has grown his 55-year-old business despite hard economic times and currently employs more than 25 people.
Sensing a good fit, Santaniello matched Palavra to Rhode Island Carbide.
Like Price and Santaniello, Lombari could see Palavra’s potential immediately and he, too, became a key influence in Justin’s life. “He’s always got his head in the job,” Lombari said.

“I found out that Justin was getting up at 4 a.m., taking a bus into Providence, another bus to Smithfield, and then walking the last two miles, all to be at work for 6!” Lombari said. “No way could we let that continue, so we started picking him up in the morning.”

In the last few months, Lombari has made it possible for Palavra to buy a car. “He’s never let me down,” said Lombari. “Justin is a good investment.”

Palavra has a deep appreciation for his mentors. He refers to the Man Up program as “a brotherhood,” and is scheduled to become a member of its board of directors. He loves working at RI Carbide, listening and learning from the seasoned machinists around him. He looks back on his training with the SAMI program as a turning point. Now on track to a satisfying and stable career and earning an hourly rate in the high teens, Palavra plans on returning to New England Tech to earn a degree.

“I couldn’t really tell you where I’d be without that opportunity at New England Tech,” he said. “I feel so happy to have found something I love to do, something I can make a career out of. They told me it had the potential to change my life — and they were right.”

New England Tech is equally proud — of Justin Palavra, its SAMI program and its record supplying employers like Rhode Island Carbide with such bright and qualified candidates.




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