Need work? Maine community colleges recruit students for machinist jobs

Kyle Forsythe of Harrison, a second-year student at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, operates a computerized numerical-control machine in a precision machinery technology class Tuesday.
Jose Leiva | Sun Journal
Kyle Forsythe of Harrison, a second-year student at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, operates a computerized numerical-control machine in a precision machinery technology class Tuesday.
Posted May 02, 2012, at 7 a.m.

AUBURN, Maine — When Tarra Arsenault tells friends she’s a student in precision machining technology, they have “no clue what I’m talking about,” she said.

She tells them, “I work on a big machine and make metal parts. It’s got to be precise.”

Arsenault, 19, of Rumford, expects to graduate from Central Maine Community College in 2013 year owing $3,500 in loans and to get a job at a starting salary of $40,000.

A skilled machinist can go anywhere in the world and get a good-paying job, officials said Tuesday, unveiling a new program to lure Maine high school students to that field.

The Maine Community College System, the Manufacturers Association of Maine and Great Bay Foundation have joined forces and created a new program, Future for ME, Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons said Tuesday at a news conference.

The program next year will offer $4,500 scholarships to 28 high school graduates.

“While some students graduate from college with $200,000 in debt and very little in job prospects, these students will graduate with no debt and probably a $40,000 job,” said Central Maine Community College President Scott Knapp.

The Future for ME program will create two full-time community college staffers to work with students. Those staffers will visit high schools to talk to juniors and seniors about what a great career field precision machining is, Knapp said. The high school visits will begin this fall, he said.

Candidates will need high skills in reading, writing and math. “You cannot come into this program with consumer math. This is an algebra-based program,” Knapp said.

Across Maine, precision machining employs more than 50,000 workers and is a key export business, Fitzsimmons said. “There are over 900 job openings in our state. The industry is facing a daunting challenge of an aging work force.”

Offering scholarships to 28 sounds like a small number when considering the 900 job openings, Fitzsimmons acknowledged, adding that the community college system should be enrolling 300 to 400 to catch up.

The new program “is the beginning,” he said. “We are very excited about attracting students directly from high school into this program and into the industry.”

Precision machining courses are offered at community colleges across Maine, but the Auburn program is one of the largest. That means Future for ME will be mostly centered on the Lewiston-Auburn area.

According to Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, 40 Maine companies were recently asked how many job openings they had. “Forty companies said over 230 jobs,” Martin said. Those jobs pay between $30,000 and $60,000 a year.

Companies who need skilled machinists include Pratt & Whitney of North Berwick, which makes jet engines and recently announced it’s hiring 400 workers. Hussey Seating, also of North Berwick, is adding 70 jobs, Martin said. Other businesses that are hiring include those that manufacture medical devices, bioplastics, metal fabrication, electronics, food products and textiles, Martin said.

Workers ages 18 to 24 have the highest unemployment rate, “yet members of our manufacturing association echo the concerns of their counterparts all over the country; they cannot find a skilled work force to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs going unfilled because of the lack of candidates,” Martin said. That’s hampering business, she said. “Companies turn down work because they don’t have the work force to fill the orders.”

Part of the problem is that the public doesn’t know what precision machining is. Martin said the technology is used to make specialized parts for all kinds of things.

“If you are flying in an airplane (or driving a car), you want to be sure the parts in the car or plane are perfect,” Martin said. “You can’t say 80 or 90 percent is good enough. It doesn’t work that way.”

(c)2012 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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