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Hot Job: Simon Pearce Begins Apprenticeship Program to Train New Glassblowers

  • Madeleine Murray of Bradford, Vt., gathers glass from a furnace at the Simon Pearce company headquarters in Windsor, Vt., during the fourth day of an eight-week apprenticeship program on April 22, 2014. Murray and nine other participants will learn the basics of making some of Simon Pearce's signature pieces, the first being a simple glass ice cube. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Madeleine Murray of Bradford, Vt., gathers glass from a furnace at the Simon Pearce company headquarters in Windsor, Vt., during the fourth day of an eight-week apprenticeship program on April 22, 2014. Murray and nine other participants will learn the basics of making some of Simon Pearce's signature pieces, the first being a simple glass ice cube.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Finished ice cubes made by apprentices cool slowly in an annealing oven  to prevent breaking from the sudden temperature change in at Simon Pearce in Windsor, Vt., on April 22, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Finished ice cubes made by apprentices cool slowly in an annealing oven to prevent breaking from the sudden temperature change in at Simon Pearce in Windsor, Vt., on April 22, 2014.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thor Shafer of Quechee, Vt., pours molten glass into an ice cube mold as Jason Tucker, a glassblower and trainer, cuts the glass during apprentice training at Simon Pearce in Windsor, Vt., on April 22, 2014. This new program allows apprentices to learn from many different glassblowers over an eight week period. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Thor Shafer of Quechee, Vt., pours molten glass into an ice cube mold as Jason Tucker, a glassblower and trainer, cuts the glass during apprentice training at Simon Pearce in Windsor, Vt., on April 22, 2014. This new program allows apprentices to learn from many different glassblowers over an eight week period.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Madeleine Murray of Bradford, Vt., gathers glass from a furnace at the Simon Pearce company headquarters in Windsor, Vt., during the fourth day of an eight-week apprenticeship program on April 22, 2014. Murray and nine other participants will learn the basics of making some of Simon Pearce's signature pieces, the first being a simple glass ice cube. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)
  • Finished ice cubes made by apprentices cool slowly in an annealing oven  to prevent breaking from the sudden temperature change in at Simon Pearce in Windsor, Vt., on April 22, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)
  • Thor Shafer of Quechee, Vt., pours molten glass into an ice cube mold as Jason Tucker, a glassblower and trainer, cuts the glass during apprentice training at Simon Pearce in Windsor, Vt., on April 22, 2014. This new program allows apprentices to learn from many different glassblowers over an eight week period. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

Windsor — Sweating in front of a 2,400-degree oven in shorts and a T-shirt must have seemed like an ideal job for the 50 or so applicants who answered a Simon Pearce advertisement for its glassblower apprenticeship program back in late February, when a warm day hovered around 15 above.

In fact, company officials were surprised by the response. They had thought they might have to cast a regional net for candidates, but all the members of the “strong” group of applicants came from the Upper Valley.

“We were really pleased with the quality of the applicants and the number who turned out,” Mara Rivera, vice president of human resources at Simon Pearce, said last week.

Demand has been high for the company’s hand-blown glass in the last few years, and the company has been pressed to keep up, particularly because there’s a shortage of qualified glassblowers.

Simon Pearce glassware and glass objects are sold in high-end department stores and in the company’s five retail stores, as well as two factory outlets.

Faced with a lack of manpower, mounting overtime and orders to fill for wine glasses, bowls and other glass products, company officials came up with the new program that allows them to qualify and hire apprentices without having to slow down production for training.

In the past, glassblower candidates would be hired and trained on the job, working with a production team until they learned the trade. That process slowed production because it took the most skilled members of the team off the line and made them trainers.

The new program, which began this month, allows the two- or three-member teams to work a normal shift during the day, and the trainers to work three nights a week with the apprentices in an eight-week course.

Glassblowing is not a job for everyone. Those looking for a relaxing 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift need not apply.

The process can be dangerous if workers don’t have their wits about them and adhere to strict safety procedures. Once the molten ball of glass is pulled from the blazing furnace, it needs to be attended to — molded or blown into shape, cut and cooled properly.

Glassblowers have to work quickly, safely and accurately. And Simon Pearce has set a high bar for quality, and production levels have to be maintained.

If a piece goes wrong, then it’s recycled and mixed with a special company mixture of silica sand pellets that contain lime, potash and other minerals. About 3 percent of the glassblowers’ work has to be recycled, said Bill Browne, a master glassblower and the Quechee glass production manager. He’s heading up the training for the new apprentice program.

Luke Nilsson, of Quechee, has grown up around Simon Pearce and has wanted to be a glassblower four the last four years. The 18-year-old Hartford High senior is part of the apprentice program, and although he doesn’t find the work easy, he’s enthusiastic about his future as a glassblower. “I really love it. It’s much better than I originally thought it was going to be. I’m glad they gave me an opportunity to do this. I’d love to do it the rest of my life,” Nilsson said.

His older brother, Matt, also is in the program and is excited about getting a shot at a permanent position. “It’s a dream job. It’s a little more fast-paced than I anticipated, but I’ve always dreamed of having a career at Simon Pearce since I was growing up,” he said.

The glassblowing program came at a good time for Scott Swart, a Hanover High School graduate who recently got out of the Marine Corps after serving four years, stationed for two of them in Okinawa, Japan.

He’s between jobs, and the glassblowing program is on the other end of the spectrum from his recently concluded position, which was blowing snow at the Dartmouth Skiway. “It was quite a shift from making snow at negative 20 to a 2,400-degree furnace,” Swart said. “I’m really glad I was selected, and I hope to do this for a long time. It’s hard. I’ve never done anything like this before, and it’s really challenging. But challenging is good. I like that. It’s hard to measure how well I’m doing, but I think I’m progressing.”

From the applicant pool of 50, there were 28 who were interviewed, Browne said.

“I was looking for certain skills, things that we could build off of to make them a good fit for our teams, such skill sets as having played team sports or a background in the building trades,” said Browne, who has been with Simon Pearce for 18 years and worked as a carpenter prior to taking the glassblowing position.

Out of the 28 candidates interviewed, Browne found 10 who seemed to fit the criteria, and after the training is completed, the best five or six will be hired immediately.

The company’s glassblowers work eight-hour shifts, usually making one product for four hours and then changing to another, Browne said.

If the candidates who don’t make the top five or six are suited for the work, they will be given a shot at future employment, Rivera said.

Simon Pearce has 49 glassblowers working in production facilities in Windsor, Quechee and in Mountain Lake Park, Md. Because of a number of recent hires, the nine-year average tenure of the glassblowers is skewed downward, said the company’s marketing specialist, Meghan Mahoney, noting that 34 of the glassblowers have more than 10 years with the company, and 11 of those have more than 20 years on the job.

The 96-hour apprentice program offers participants an opportunity to learn the skill of glassblowing, as well as earning $10 an hour. The three-night-a-week sessions also don’t interfere with their daytime activities, Rivera said, adding that the apprentices have other jobs or are in school.

Grants from the Vermont Department of Economic Development’s Training Program cover up to half the costs of the apprentices. The program also benefits the four trainers, who are taking part in the Upper Valley program. In addition to a fixed financial incentive, they were given a 16-hour workshop in how to provide positive feedback and how to motivate the apprentices. They also learned how to recognize and adapt to different learning styles, Rivera said.

Simon Pearce plans to hold another training program in its Maryland production facility later this year.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.