ORONO, Maine — Last September, Richard McGrath lost his job at Bath Iron Works when the company laid off 44 engineers because design work on the next-generation Zumwalt destroyer had mostly wrapped up and BIW couldn’t find the funding to keep everyone on payroll.
Now, the 52-year-old professional engineer is looking to the skies and a “dream retirement career” working on unmanned aerial vehicle — or UAV — technology, he said Thursday.
McGrath, who lives on Westport Island, is the first person in the state to earn a concentration in aerospace engineering from the University of Maine in Orono.
The 30-year Maine worker took the three required classes over a three-year period starting in 2009 in order to fulfill his continuing education requirements for his professional engineering license. He said he could have taken mechanical or structural engineering courses, but was drawn to aerospace because it was out of his realm of expertise and he felt the courses would bring him a new set of skills.
“Retraining is a big thing these days,” McGrath said. “You have to be ready nowadays to be able to take on a different career.”
Before working at BIW, McGrath designed software for the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset to simulate malfunctions and meltdowns to train employees. McGrath said it might be interesting to apply his experience with simulators to aircraft and spacecraft.
Adjunct professor David Rubenstein teaches aeronautics, astronautics, flight dynamics, modeling and control of aircraft and space vehicles at UMaine. He also founded Maine Aerospace Consulting LLC, which supported the Maine Aerospace Alliance in kick-starting the courses. About 20 students are taking courses in the program, with another two or three expected to earn their concentrations at the end of the semester.
“[Teaching] has not been my career,” said Rubenstein, who has worked 20 years in the aerospace industry for companies such as Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon. “When I teach this, I try as hard as I can to teach material that is relevant to the daily lives of engineers.”
The online courses allow Rubenstein to lecture students wherever they are by webcam. Students can keep an eye on the digital blackboard, message one another throughout the lecture or interact with the professor.
McGrath took the courses in his office at BIW, and continued taking them from home after getting laid off. Completing the program would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the distance learning opportunity, he said.
Richard Grich, director of the Maine Aerospace Alliance, said Maine’s aerospace industry brings in about $500 million per year. His organization has grown from 34 to 80 members in the past few years, he said.
The Maine Aerospace Alliance and Manufacturers Association of Maine awarded grants to help offset tuition for students going through these first years of the program in the hopes that it would boost the aerospace industry in Maine, according to Lisa Martin, executive director of the Maine Manufacturers Association.
“It’s a great chance for Maine to be promoting this because of the huge opportunities globally to increase the aerospace market here in Maine,” Martin said.
Martin’s and Grich’s organizations hope to push Maine toward a thriving, internationally respected aerospace industry, they said. That starts with building a generation of students who have the skills to move the industry forward.
McGrath said he might take some liberties with his newfound aerospace experience.
“If someone asks, ‘What are you, a rocket scientist?’” McGrath said. “I might say, ‘Well, actually…’”