ROCKLAND, Maine — Every one of the speakers at the education conference here Monday night wanted to solve Fisher Engineering’s problem.
The company expanded its Maine facility two years ago and needed more workers. It has tried and tried, but despite the dismal job picture, the company still can’t find and keep skilled employees.
“January 1, we hired 101 workers. 92 have been terminated, left on their own accord or found other jobs or found the work is not what they wanted,” said Jim Lattin, a controller at Fisher Engineering.
Bangor Savings Bank has similar problems. The bank employs about 700 people in the state, but it’s hard to find the right employees, according to Yellow Light Breen, who works for the bank.
“It’s a miracle if you can find someone who can write well, can understand math — if they can tell you the spreadsheet doesn’t make sense — and the ability to work in teams, which is critical,” Breen said Monday night at the “Education — An Economic Imperative for the Midcoast” forum at the Strand Theatre.
The forum brought in the governor, business leaders and educators to discuss how to educate Maine’s current and future work force.
The ideas were scattered: Educate the toddlers. Educate the retirement-age folks. Add college courses into high schools. Stop thinking about age and start thinking about grade levels in elementary schools.
One message was clear: What Maine is doing isn’t working and it needs to change now.
“We need to take the biggest step there is,” said Stephen Bowen, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Education. “We’ve gone from one tweak to another. We need to go into the core pieces of this system, like age-based school systems. They say everyone born from this date to this date, we will move you step pace through an assembly line. We have got to move to a flexible system, a student-based system that allows kids to move as they learn.”
Gov. Paul LePage spoke at the forum in support of this idea. He also discussed getting the best and brightest college students to be teachers by making that curriculum more difficult and by paying teachers better.
But much of the governor’s time in the spotlight was spent discussing the importance of helping high school students transition into college or job-training programs.
“[College] is a shell shock. I went to college a long time ago. We started by September and by Christmas the freshman class was down to half. We don’t do a good job preparing them to leave home,” LePage said. He said often Maine colleges must spend time teaching remedial courses to get new students up to speed with college coursework.
“By exposing them early to the demands of college and university systems while they’re still in their support systems, I think we can catch more of the kids and get them through the system of secondary education,” LePage said.
LePage touted the Many Flags One Campus model, which is being worked on in Rockland. The plan is to have a high school that also houses a community college, a branch of the University of Maine and vocational programs that all will be offered to the high school students.
“I think that is a wonderful program. I think it’s doing exactly what we’ve been talking about,” LePage said. “That transition from [high school to postsecondary] is so so critical to keep our kids engaged.”
The forum was sponsored by the Many Flags One Campus Foundation, Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, Rockland Economic Development Advisory Committee, Community and Economic Development Advisory Committee of Camden and the Maine Coast Economic Alliance.