By ROBYN BURNHAM
City Editor - Journal Tribune
Saturday, July 14, 2012 5:53 AM EDT
WELLS — The anticipated shortage of skilled workers in Maine has been in the headlines for years, and it’s time something is done about it.
At least that’s what community college officials and local legislators think, which is why a new program will kick off at York County Community College next summer to train the next generation of these workers to take the reins from the baby boomers who will begin to retire in the coming years.
YCCC President Dr. Charles Lyons said he pegs the start of this program on a recent visit to the area by former Gov. John McKernan and John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System. The two visited Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick, which manufactures jet engine parts, and heard about the need for skilled workers in the area.
Another powerful force behind the effort was state Rep. Devin M. Beliveau, D-Kittery. Beliveau, along with Rep. Kathy Chase, R-Wells, and Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Sanford, secured an annual appropriation of $257,000 for the college to keep this program running.
The integrated manufacturing associate’s degree program at YCCC will begin enrolling students this fall, and while the lab facilities are set up at a site in Sanford, Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Paula Gagnon said she hopes to get all of the details ironed out for a summer 2013 start, with an initial cohort of eight to 12 students. She forsees future classes to be between 20 and 30 students. Gagnon is working closely with Janet Sortor, her counterpart at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.
SMCC has its own integrated manufacturing associate’s degree program, and Gagnon says it’s great – and it’s full, which is why another program will help train workers for careers at businesses in the county like Pratt & Whitney and General Dynamics in Saco.
Pratt & Whitney’s General Manager Michael Papp said this week that the company will need more workers in the future, but they don’t know exact figures. A large portion of the company’s workers are nearing retirement age, and the number of people qualified to begin those jobs does not match the need, he said.
Papp said he believes one reason for the shortage of skilled workers is the misconception that factories are not good places to work.
“I think the perception is factories are big, loud, dark, dirty places,” he said. “That’s not the case.”
Papp said Pratt & Whitney is bright and clean, and their staff is made up of highly skilled and educated people, working to create precision jet engine components. Papp said the company offers well-paying jobs with opportunities for long, rewarding careers. And with the right training – like an associate’s degree in integrated manufacturing – the possibilities for promotions to supervisory and management positions increase greatly.
“They have a lot more opportunities for advancement,” Papp said of employees who earn degrees. “They have a very good work ethic, and they come in with a much broader knowledge.”
And thanks to contracts like the recently announced F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, Pratt & Whitney will need more workers in the coming years. The company will be building parts for the jet’s engine, known as the F135. In April, officials announced the local impact could mean up to 400 new jobs.
For YCCC, this means viable job options for its students upon graduation.
“I’d like for every graduate to a get a job. I’d also like for the program to be sustained,” said Gagnon, so in the future, the program continues to meet the needs of local manufactures. “I’d like there to be no gap in the demand.”
A few steps remain before the program gets off the ground. The college recently secured a site in Sanford where lab classes will be held. Eastern Maine Community College has also donated some “moth-balled” machines for the program, Lyons said. It is an expensive program, though, which is why administrators are hoping to secure bond funds through a November ballot question. But even if the package is approved by voters, it’s unclear whether Gov. Paul LePage will authorize the bond orders to begin the process.
Even without the bond, Lyons says the program will be ready to launch in 2013, thanks to the annual state appropriation and collaboration with the other community colleges in the system. The cost to students will remain the same as far as tuition, although lab fees may be slightly more than in other courses.
All in all, the staff and manufacturing business leaders are pleased the program will come to fruition.
“This was just a dream in somebody’s eye,” Lyons said.
Students interested in that dream can visit www.yccc.edu for more information.
— City Editor Robyn Burnham can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 329 or firstname.lastname@example.org