BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s manufacturers need access to a more skilled workforce and to reverse the perception that manufacturing is a dying industry, according to Jamie Arsenault, general manager of Howard Tool Co. in Bangor.
That was the message Arsenault communicated to Rep. Mike Michaud, who toured the company’s facility on Odlin Road on Tuesday afternoon. It was an early stop for Michaud on what’s expected to be a weeklong tour of Maine manufacturers.
Howard Tool has a problem finding well-qualified employees, and the loss of training programs for skilled machinists hasn’t helped, Arsenault said. Two years ago the company hired a few graduates of the machinist program at Eastern Maine Community College, but the program has since been eliminated, Arsenault said. The Bangor region has lost all its general machinist training in the last five years, said Tracy Laverdiere, Howard Tool’s production manager.
Michaud, who last year helped Howard Tool secure a $25,000 grant through the New England Trade Adjustment Assistance Center to improve its efficiency, expects he’ll hear more about workforce training needs during the rest of his tour. He’s scheduled to tour B&B Precise Products in Benton on Wednesday morning, followed by Lewiston’s Allen Manufacturing and several other manufacturers in Lewiston and Auburn on Thursday. “I’m sure by the end of the week we’ll be hearing it again,” Michaud said, referring to the concern for the lack of a skilled workforce.
Marty Arsenault, Jamie’s father, founded Howard Tool in 1985 and began by manufacturing precision parts for machines used in the shoe industry, then other parts as industries have come and gone. Today Howard Tool employs 14 people and does between $1 million and $3 million in sales a year manufacturing precision parts for the defense industry. But most people have never heard of Howard Tool, said Marty Arsenault. “We don’t advertise,” he said. “We’re not out in the public eye at all.”
In a sense, manufacturers have created their own problems, Marty Arsenault said. “We’re our own worst enemy. When things get slow, what do we do? First thing we do is lay our people off, which is the worst thing in the world to do because then you lose them, then they don’t want to come back,” he said. “Then it just snowballs because then mom hears about all the layoffs at Lemforder and Lemforder is leaving, so she’s not going to have her son go into manufacturing, no sir. He’s going to go to a four-year school.”
As a result, it’s hard for manufacturers to hire the skilled workers it needs, Marty Arsenault said.
But Marty Arsenault believes the industry can create its own solutions as well. It will require companies to provide their own training and to automate “heavily,” he said. As for how to fund those solutions, he said it would need to be done however is possible, internally if need be. “We just have to be able to do better with less,” he said. “Like everybody else.”