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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Local employer trains new workers from the ground up
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Steve Rucker (left), director of operations for RJE Telecom LLC, presents a certificate to new employee Eddie Stewart during a ceremony at Jefferson Plaza. Stewart and several others were honored for completing a training program associated with their jobs. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

Three months ago, RJE Telecom LLC had three employees in its new Martinsville office. On Monday, it had 12 on board and was looking for four more trainees.

It is an example of a company thinking creatively and using local work force development resources to find employees willing to learn new skills in exchange for a good work environment, a good paycheck and a good future, the company's director of operations said.

On Monday afternoon, RJE held a small "graduation" for its new employees and an open house to celebrate its new office. The new employees finished their training Friday and started working Monday for the company, which provides contract engineering and consulting services for the telephone industry.

The new employees recognized Monday are David Hairston, Barbara Holland, Timmie Hylton, Sharon Marlowe and Allen Miller, as well as office manager Eddie Stewart.

"I read letters to the editor and the news about job losses, and it's rarely uplifting," RJE's Steve Rucker wrote in an email to the Martinsville Bulletin. "There is a positive story here and one that builds on growth."�

That story began when Rucker retired after 31 years with CenturyLink, the last 12 of which were as an engineering manager in Martinsville.

To keep from getting bored, he joined RJE, which is part of a nationwide company of the same name that is based in Fort Myers, Fla. RJE is part of Dycom Corp., he said.

RJE does engineering for the cables laid by telephone companies, both inside a plant and out, he said. It works on projects nationwide, bringing information to Martinsville where it is inputted in computer systems used by the telephone industry, and it also does pricing and ordering for individual projects, he added.

Rucker started with RJE in sales in February 2010 but saw a need for engineering services and took over those operations. He opened the local office at 10 E. Church St. in the Jefferson Plaza in April, staffed by Rucker, his wife and a friend of theirs.

The business "exploded," he said, and he needed help. "I could find engineers who know how to do field work, but to get it (information) into the systems of the phone company, I needed to take people and train them on a one-on-one kind of thing."�

Recruiting and training while also running the business was "not very cost effective," Rucker said, so he got in touch with Linda Plaster of the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, who specializes in helping existing businesses succeed. He also worked with the Virginia Workforce Network and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) offices.

Rucker told them he was looking for applicants with AutoCAD (computer-aided drafting) experience, basic math and computer skills, positive attitudes, good communication skills, and a drive to succeed.

Plaster and the others located candidates and did prescreenings and interviews before bringing 12 candidates to Rucker. Three got jobs elsewhere and two did not qualify, he said.

"Five met my needs and interviewed very well. It's been miraculous," he said. "They have taken hold of this and worked hard and become excellent students. Because of that, I'm going to hire them."�

RJE initially was skeptical when Rucker outlined his plan to hire workers with no experience and have them doing productive work in nine weeks. But he said now that the training period is over, the employees will continue to learn on the job, working in the field.

It is "an old model - learn while you're working," he said. "You can go to school and learn, but until you hit the street, you don't know what you'll face. You have to be in the field and take notes and learn how it goes together."�

"The process has been tough but so rewarding," Rucker said. "I am so proud of these folks that have given their all to learn a very technical process."�

Rucker hired two others who went through the training and a college intern who plans to leave Radford University and transfer to the New College Institute so he can continue working at RJE. He also added a person to do the training, creating another job.

"I have been able to train eight unemployed local citizens (five through WIA) with no real telephony knowledge, in a job field that will give them the opportunity to earn a decent wage and develop a career that otherwise may not have been afforded to them," he said.

Most of the full-time jobs are paying $13 to $15 an hour, and one person who had management experience will make about $22 an hour, he said.

"If they have the desire to move on, I could move them in as a field engineer within a year," and they would make $25 an hour, Rucker said.

"It's a lucrative field. That's why I was excited that the company backed me on it," he added.

The group is diverse, including young men and grandmothers, a machinist, a biochemist and a person who formerly worked in furniture factories, Rucker said. One formerly worked in information technology with American of Martinsville; another worked at a call center, he said.

"I like a diverse group," Rucker said. "I get the influence of the community. It makes a real good work group. It's amazing how well they have jelled into a team."�

As his business grows, Rucker said he is working with Plaster to find four more trainees. He also would like to work with drafting students at Patrick Henry Community College, New College Institute students and those in the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, organized by Martinsville teacher Helen Howell.

"I would love to give her the opportunity to bring those kids in and experience real work programs," Rucker said.

"There are a whole lot of things I'm excited about ... bringing something to this community that may not have been there in the past," he said, adding that he is challenging the "community to step out of the box" to create businesses and jobs.


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