Local trade school graduates feel duped

BROOKSVILLE –
They expected to work on cruise ships. Two of them got jobs building screen porches. The rest got nothing.

They were promised they’d graduate with their heads filled with all the required marine interior skills. No one ever touched any welding equipment, let alone received training on how to use them, they said.

Some thought they would be working off the coast of Mexico, but those jobs were not available by the time they graduated. The company insisted on hiring Mexican workers.

They were promised the class at the Hernando Employment Training Association would last 12 weeks. It lasted more than five months.

Seven HETA graduates spoke negatively about their experiences. None has ever seen the inside of a shipyard since graduation.

Ed Tordesillas, president of HETA, said he sympathizes.

“I really, really do feel for the students,” he said. “It’s just a very, very tough economy out there.”

More students have come through the school, so the pool off out-of-work graduates is growing. Nonetheless, Tordesillas said HETA is still working to find them employment.

“We’re not going to stop,” he said. “My job is to help them. It’s absolutely to help them.”

In all, five classes have graduated from HETA. The school hopes to expand in the coming months and add several more morning and afternoon classes.

In spite of Tordesillas’ promises to help and in spite of them still clinging to the hope their HETA education will lead to a future job offer, the students from the June graduating class are unanimously bitter.

Thirteen men graduated from that class. They think they could have spent those five months looking for work, or at the very least, used the $5,000 in grant money to attend another trade school.

“I just want my five grand back so I can go take a welding class somewhere,” said Joey Piganowski, 42, of Tampa. “We spent five months in school when we could’ve been working. If you include all the time I’ve been trying to find a job, that’s a year that’s been tied up with these people. They’re living like fat cats and I have nothing to show for it.”

When a student suffered a sawing accident, he was treated and released at the hospital. HETA paid for it, Tordesillas said.

When the jobs in Mexico seemed like a sure thing, the students who didn’t have passports purchased them. When it fell through, the school reimbursed them, he said.

Tordesillas said he didn’t start the school as a way to make money.

He said he has extensive experience in the field of job assistance and training. A proposal was made to him in 2008 from a local industry executive about starting a trade school. The goal was to boost the number of local available workers with specialized skills.

It seemed like a good idea. Tordesillas thinks it still is a good idea. He relies on grant money for the school to survive and grow.

“We help people who have to overcome a lot of barriers,” he said. “We work with troubled youths, criminal offenders … We try to help everyone we can.”

A one-time grant wasted

“The message was come to class every day, do the work and apply yourself. The people who do that are going to get the jobs,” said Dennis Ely, a member of HETA’s second class. “I had a perfect attendance record. I got a 96 percent overall grade and no job. When you asked them about it, they would say, ‘Well, we didn’t really guarantee you a job.'”

Ely, who is in his 50s, has since moved to California to look for work. His background is in construction.

He applied and was eligible for a $5,000 grant through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). The federal law was passed in 1998. It offers tuition and training costs for those who have been laid off. It also can be used by those looking to acquire new skills to secure a job in a new field.

There is a catch. The grant is a one-time deal.

Ely, like his classmates, feels as though he wasted his best opportunity for a better life.

The grant money, students said, went toward the salaries for those who work at HETA.

In spite of his resentment, Ely said he would accept any call from a HETA placement specialist.

“I don’t have a lot of options,” he said. “I have to find work.

“I went into marine joining to start a new career,” Ely continued. “Construction failed me and I needed something else. I really think they were just stroking me the whole time.”

Michael Fetz graduated from the same class. He said he finished with a final grade of 91 percent.

He, along with another graduate whose wife was employed at HETA, was offered a job with Coastal Craftsman, a pool cage company.

His other classmates wondered why he was offered a job and not them. Fetz wasn’t sure.

“I had hell to pay over that,” he said of his classmates’ initial resentment. “People called me and asked me, ‘How did that happen? I didn’t blame them for reacting that way, but I couldn’t refuse a job.”

The job paid about $10 an hour, he said. It was half of what he and his fellow students expected to be making after graduation.

Fetz, 27, didn’t work long for Coastal Craftsman. Years earlier, he had been injured in a motorcycle accident and had a steel rod inserted into his leg. He said he wasn’t physically suited to walk along beams 10 feet above ground.

Since quitting over the summer, he has remained unemployed.

“I should have taken that five months I spent at that school and looked for a job,” said Fetz, who is married with an 11-year-old stepson and a 16-month old son. “I probably missed a lot of opportunities out there.”

Jesse McKay, 22, of Brooksville, was one of the youngest students in the class. He now works for a local pizzeria. While in school, he worked part-time in retail.

“I was promised a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We were going to go through this class and we were going to learn everything we needed to know about this trade … I plunged myself into the class.”

The instructors included someone who had only a few weeks of training in marine joining and another who graduated from HETA’s first class in 2009. Within weeks, McKay and the others were skeptical.

“Right off the bat, you’re like, ‘What the heck is going on here?'” he said.

They didn’t work with blueprints. They worked with drawings sketched on letter-sized paper, said McKay.

They didn’t use welding tools. They only had a few saws and some screw guns.

“Out of those (five) months, we spent two months learning,” McKay said. “The rest of the time we sat on our (expletive deleted) and learned nothing. The whole time people were like, ‘Why am I here?'”

McKay was down on his luck, but he realized others had it worse.

“A lot of these guys were older and had families and mortgages,” he said. “We’re sitting in this class that was being dragged out and these poor guys needed to pay their mortgages.”

Six weeks ago, McKay received a call from a placement specialist at HETA. She told him of a job opportunity.

She didn’t know the name of the company. She didn’t know the address. She didn’t know much about the job other than it involved distributing, said McKay.

He declined the offer.

McKay, like most of the rest of his classmates, didn’t hold back when they spoke about HETA and the people who run it.

“They knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. “They knew what they were doing was wrong. The (grant) money was coming in for them and they were getting out of control with it.”

HETA wanted to give students hope, not promises

HETA is located at 3195 Premier Drive near the Airport Industrial Park. Renovations are being made and plans are underway to expand the school to include machining and ship building classes.

Tordesillas said the school started following a meeting between him and JB Bowles, president of R&M Ship Technologies USA.

Bowles no longer is employed with R&M. He still sits on the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board, but he doesn’t know for how much longer.

The same workforce agency distributes the WIA grants.

R&M shut down its Brooksville location because of a lack of business. The company had hoped to make the local facility its U.S. headquarters. Bowles said the supplies were moved to storage and the company is looking to lease the building in the Airport Industrial Park.

“We mothballed it,” said Bowles. “Business was not doing well, especially after the Gulf oil spill.”

One of R&M’s divisions was supposed to have offered job opportunities for HETA graduates. Some of the graduates from the first class – maybe a half-dozen – still are working for R&M in Philadelphia, Bowles said.

He expected R&M to have more positions available for HETA graduates, but not every bidding contract gets accepted, said Bowles.

The Hernando County Commission offered monetary incentives to R&M. Those incentives were contingent on whether it could bring 15 to 20 jobs like it promised. It fell short.

In 2008, Bowles and Tordesillas came to an agreement: Tordesillas would open a school that would teach students how to build an interior of a ship. The graduates would make up the pool of desired skill workers.

Both men insist the closing of R&M’s location in the Airport Industrial Park had no effect on HETA. There were no jobs in Brooksville for marine joining. The jobs were in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Mexico.

Those jobs didn’t pan out either, Tordesillas said.

In addition to R&M, HETA’s website lists Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, Florida Marine Joiner Services, Lowe’s, Tampa Ship and the Insultech Group as sponsors or collaborators.

Karen Cobb, a Lowe’s spokeswoman, said the home-improvement retailer has no known affiliation with HETA.

“Certainly we will be looking into their use of the Lowe’s brand,” Cobb said.

Tordesillas said Lowe’s had donated supplies to help the school get started.

Students said they have applied for marine joining jobs on their own. When they call companies, including the names listed as sponsors on HETA’s website, the hiring managers tell them they are not familiar with the school.

In a story published in Hernando Today nine months ago, Tordesillas and his staff bragged about the success of the first class. Eighty percent of them found jobs while the rest were interviewing and on the brink of employment, they said.

“Twelve of our 15 graduates have designated jobs,” Tordesillas said in that article, copies of which were framed and are hanging on the walls inside the school. “Some will work locally. Others are going to do contract work in Philadelphia. Starting pay is $20 an hour.”

Tordesillas, who was interviewed Friday, stands by those numbers. He would not speak negatively about the students in the second class other than to say he was “disappointed” they were speaking out so strongly against the school.

One of them, Richard Coleman, 28, lives in a one-bedroom trailer in Shady Hills.

“I have not been called one time for a job, not one time,” he said.

Coleman is unemployed. His roommate graduated from HETA’s first class, the one with the 80 percent success rate.

Coleman’s roommate declined to be interviewed. He is employed, but not as a marine joiner.

Tordesillas thinks Coleman and others like him misinterpreted what HETA was offering. They would become better job candidates upon completion of the school, but nothing was automatic, he said.

“There is nothing in our writings that suggested we guarantee jobs,” said Tordesillas. “We didn’t misguide them. We trained them. We taught them. We’re still trying to help them. Everything we’re trying to do here is positive for the community.”

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5823 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

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