Windsor, Vt. — Glowing molten glass balanced on the end of pipes wielded by craftsmen mesmerizes 350,000 visitors to Simon Pearce in Vermont each year. Busloads of people roll in daily to tour the glassblowing and pottery studios, view the hydroelectric turbine, shop the store, and dine in the restaurant on the Ottauquechee River, overlooking a waterfall. It’s a bit like Oz, really.
It’s not surprising then, that when the company, known around the work for its beautiful glass creations, placed an ad in the local paper announcing a glassblowing apprenticeship program, it received 50 applications. Ten applicants landed apprenticeships. During the eight-week, 120-hour program, seasoned glassblowers teach basic skills at the company’s Windsor headquarters. Apprentices, who earn $10 an hour, are evaluated halfway through. From those who complete phase two, five or six will be offered full-time positions, benefits included.
Matt Nilson, who works at the Quechee Diner while raising his 6-month-old daughter, has been fascinated with Simon Pearce as long as he can remember. With a background in ceramics, he hopes to save enough to purchase his own torch and pursue three-dimensional glasswork. He’s intrigued to hear that Simon Pearce has started producing jewelry and hopes he’ll be a good fit, long-term.
His brother Luke, a high school senior who started experimenting with glass at age 14, is also an apprentice. He can’t believe his luck at having been accepted, and, like his brother, hopes to stay on full-time. He can’t wait to be skilled enough to produce a glass Christmas tree.
“I want to make one so badly,” he says, “but it will probably be a few years.” When he’s told that some have done it in about a year, he quickly adjusts his thinking, and replies, “Well then, I’ll give me a few months.”
When Scott Swart of Lyme, N.H., saw the ad, he was between jobs, having finished a snowmaking gig following a four-year assignment in Okinowa with the Marine Corps. He talks about the focus required when working near the 2,400-degree ovens, and the incredible opportunity to “shoot the breeze” with experienced glassblowers. The other day, a master told him that getting frustrated is a crucial step in the learning process.
The apprentice shift takes place after normal workday hours, so as not to interfere with current commitments, or Simon Pearce’s internal production schedule. In fact, the program grew out of a need to hire glassblowers to meet increased demand for product, thanks to recent business expansion (a new CEO took the reigns last year). Normally, apprentices are hired individually, as needed, and paired with a master craftsman to learn on the job. This way, apprentices get dedicated attention, a supportive environment, and a low-risk way to try it out.
Mara Neufeld Rivera, the company’s vice president of human resources, developed the program, one of over 21,000 registered apprentice programs in the United States. She plans to launch a similar program at their factory in Mountain Lake Park, Md..
“It’s not as though you can just place an ad for a glassblower when you need one,” she says. “Apprenticeships pass on unique skills. Our glassblowers are the heart and soul of Simon Pearce.”