Building a local work force, house by house

Posted Aug. 11, 2011, at 5:03 p.m.

In late 2009, faced with two startling realities in the region, 11 area organizations began a collaboration that would change the lives of residents in eastern Maine.

The first reality was that there are currently more than 8,000 mobile homes in Maine that were built before 1976 — when there were no building codes for homes of that type. The other was that there are also countless Maine residents who want to work but need training.

The partners began thinking of how they could bring the two together in a new way. That’s when the Pathways Project was born.

Organizations such as Eastern Maine Development Corporation, Maine State Housing Authority, Eastern Maine Community College and United Technologies Center and the other partners envisioned a program that would simultaneously upgrade the skills of workers in Eastern Maine for construction industry trades while providing low cost replacement housing for Maine residents living in those pre-1976 mobile homes. These new, two- and three-bedroom homes would not only meet modern codes but they also would be built “green” and therefore be highly energy efficient.

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Recognizing that this vision would require financial support, they completed and submitted a grant application to the US Department of Labor through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In January 2010 Pathways Project Manager for EMDC, Kitty Barbee, received word that their application had been approved.

One of the distinctive things about the Pathways Project is how it’s bringing groups and organizations together in new ways to achieve common goals. Sometimes the participants have specific challenges that have kept them from pursuing employment or furthering their education. It’s in those instances that the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board’s support of this program provides assistance with child care, books, tools, etc. in order to get people who want to work, working. Pathways partner Penquis CAP had programs in place to provide replacement housing for low-income families when the Pathways Project idea was born.

Pathways fit well into their mission and they came on board as the organization that identifies area families in need of low cost replacement housing. The Maine State Housing Authority also has committed funding for materials as well as assistance to ensure that the home is affordable for the family. For a program like the Pathways Project to continue, it cannot happen in a vacuum. That’s where organizations such as Opportunity Maine come in. Rob Brown and his team work tirelessly to promote the project and its goals within the various communities bringing awareness and support.

So far 254 individuals — men and women of various ages and circumstances — have applied to participate in the training program, which will build a total of seven homes over two years. This level of interest demonstrates the need for a program of this nature in our region.

Participants are looking for more than just a job. They want a career and are willing to dedicate themselves to the learning process that will help them achieve professional success.

The Pathways Project offers hands-on experience building energy-efficient homes coupled with classroom training. After they’ve completed the program, participants will have earned credentials in three or more nationally recognized programs. They will have completed a course in WorkReady training — a program that assures future employers that these applicants know what it means to do a job and do it well.

On July 22, the first group of participants celebrated their graduation from the Pathways Project. One-third of those participants already had accepted employment offers from area companies. Another one-third of the program graduates were planning to continue their training through apprenticeships with either the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 716 or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1253 — both partner organizations in the Pathways Project.

Two others are immediately continuing their education in the Bangor area and six others are planning to continue their education beginning with Fall 2011 semester. This is a program that is not only helping area families own new homes that are more energy efficient. It also is helping workers begin a career path that will allow them to contribute to the improvement of the economy in eastern Maine.

The Pathways Project is about more than building a house. It’s about building the community. It’s about enriching the local workforce from within. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors. And it’s working.

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