Darrera Webb, who prefers to go by “Tink,” never really thought about a manufacturing career considering she was terrified at the idea of even holding a drill.

Now as a graduate of Gear Up, the pilot program supported by The Lee Group that provides rapid training, career coaching and overall assistance to succeed in the workforce, Webb is a few days away from starting a position with STIHL, Inc. as an Assembly Specialist.

While she’s nailed the drill part down, she’s more pumped about the potential for career advancement. She’s thrilled to be leaving a fast food job behind.

“Once I got over my fear, I realized I could conquer so much more in life,” said Webb, who graduated with 11 others from inaugural Gear Up cohort, presented by Generation USA. “Eventually I plan to go to school for IT and cybersecurity, so I intend to move forward and move up.”

The Lee Group partnered with Generation USA, a nonprofit that creates pathways for career success, to offer the free program held over two weeks that guarantees every graduate an interview with Virginia’s top manufacturers. Jobs are plentiful, starting pay is up to $15 per hour and the package includes full benefits and vacation/holiday pay. Classes and graduation took place at Tidewater Community College’s Skilled Trades Center in Portsmouth, where state-of-the-art equipment and the industrial setting duplicate a manufacturing floor.

Gregory Jones also has a fresh start after doing contract work in the shipyard that left him regularly scrambling to find a new position. As a journeyman, he had a more advanced technical skillset that most of his Gear Up, but he still was able to benefit from the program that lays the foundation for a successful manufacturing career.

“I was looking for a career change with more stability,” said Jones, excited for a position with STIHL. “I just got tired of the rat race and having to relocate here and relocate there. The pension and my own educational goals are what really drew me to STIHL.”

Jones and the others visited STIHL and IMS Gear, touring both Virginia Beach facilities, where they talked to workers and supervisors. Class members participated in simulations mimicking what they would do on the job. They sorted, they assembled, they mentored each other and developed problem-solving skills for quality assurance when processes didn’t go as planned.

“You worked as a team!” instructor Armand Latreille said, congratulating the inaugural class at the family and friends graduation ceremony on Aug. 13. “Every day, you improved.”

Soft skills were a major emphasis. Attendance and a good work ethic are essential to thriving in a new manufacturing job. The class talked about mindset and the value of persistence, particularly if circumstances become trying. They learned about being proactive — the best assembly specialists conduct quality checks without being told and take initiative to learn a new machine or skill. They drilled down on the role of personal responsibility and why taking ownership over decisions, actions and consequences is important.

Those were important conversations, says Christopher DeLeeuw, who left his first manufacturing job after two weeks, admitting he wasn’t mentally prepared for the unfamiliar setting. “Now I’m ready to work because I have those tools in the toolbox,” he said.

The Lee Group President Walt Graham also offered his congratulations, adding, “This is one of the most successful programs I’ve seen in my 20 years at The Lee Group. All of you are prepared for a career, not just a job.”

Tysean Briggs looks forward to his first day at STIHL. The 19-year-old Cox High School graduate didn’t have a direction prior to enrolling in Gear Up, noting, “I never touched a tool before.”

Rebecca Rodney enjoyed a long career in customer service prior to being laid off in December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, the layoff became permanent. “I’m going to be on the line for STIHL, and my goal is to be a foreman or supervisor,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to move up in a year, 18 months tops.”

The future is promising for all the graduates, who have the support of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council (HRWC).

“You’re walking into great jobs with amazing companies,” said Christina Brooks, the Council’s Senior Director, NextGen and Special Projects. “You’ve taken the first step for a long-term career.”

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Keara Johnson of the Lee Group’s Newport News office.