LINCOLN, Maine — Bradley Cowan would make about $3,000 less a year and be far less versatile a millwright at Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC without the training he gets at Northern Penobscot Tech, he says.
The 45-year-old Lincoln man is one of about 80 LP&T workers who have earned salary increases over the last four years by taking classes at the Region III school that are tailored by the technical high school’s teachers, mill supervisors and union representatives to meet the mill’s needs, officials said.
“We get paid an incentive to learn an extra trade, so it is pretty good for everybody,” said Cowan, who is being trained in tungsten inert gas welding this semester and has previously received certifications in metal inert gas welding at Northern Penobscot Tech.
“It is a pretty good bonus for yourself to pick up an extra trade or a new technique or learn a new skill that will benefit [you] not just at work but in your personal life,” he added. “If, so be it, something happens and you have to go somewhere else, it is a good trade to have.”
Northern Penobscot Tech and Kennebec Valley and Eastern Maine community colleges are the first Maine schools to tailor courses directly to individual paper mill maintenance and operational needs, said Duane Lugdon, who helps paper mill unions negotiate contracts as the United Steelworkers union’s international representative in Maine.
“This business of giving workers what they need to operate mills is something that these community colleges have picked up on. In the last five to eight years, this stuff has really started to come to the front,” Lugdon said Tuesday. “These community schools are doing a good job of adapting and understanding what working people in these communities need.”
The Madison, Verso, Sappi and Huhtamaki Packaging paper mills are among those that have reached out to Kennebec Valley and Eastern Maine community colleges in recent years. The University of Maine’s courses predate those efforts, but largely concentrate on scientific and chemical, not mechanical or maintenance, aspects of papermaking, Lugdon said.
Having mill maintenance training offered at a technical high school “is fairly unusual,” Lugdon added. “It is an emerging thing, but other than those [schools], there is not a huge upwelling of people coming to that front.”
LP&T is among close to a dozen local companies that have received specialized training through Northern Penobscot Tech. Others include the old Great Northern Paper Co., Penobscot Valley Hospital of Lincoln, De Witt Machine and Fabrication of Medford, Cianbro Corp. of Brewer, the town of Lincoln, Eastern Maine Development Corp., FASTCO Corp. of Lincoln, and Ramsay Welding and Machine of Lincoln, school officials said.
Besides welding, the school has offered blood-borne pathogen, computer and national electric code training to various businesses, Director Mary Hawkes said.
Former school director Al Dickey, who retired last year, was a huge part of the school’s efforts to match school offerings with local business needs, said David Hartley, the school’s welding instructor.
“It is part of his legacy that he helped get this going,” Hartley said, “especially with Cianbro. Getting them to see us as a vital place to do business was not easy, because we’re not exactly down the street from them.”
Having the flexibility to get specific training sessions so individually tailored — and so close by — is very convenient and saves Lincoln Paper travel expenses, company officials said.
“Every mill and collective bargaining agreement is different. Ours is a very technical industry so people have to get a lot of training,” mill co-owner Keith Van Scotter said Tuesday. “It is really good and we are fortunate to have that right in town.”
With LP&T, company leaders approached Northern Penobscot Tech and adult education officials with their training needs. School officials then huddled with the mill’s union and management. The three groups hashed out when and how the courses would be offered, with pay incentives — usually about another 25 cents an hour — and altered job descriptions as part of the mix, officials said.
The school charges its client businesses fees for training. Finding people to teach the courses and “getting everybody on the same page” was sometimes difficult, Hartley said, but school efforts impressed mill officials.
“If I wanted to send somebody over for basic carpentry or working on gasoline engines, they have the facilities and faculty that I could train people to do that,” said Peggy Murray, maintenance supervisor at LP&T. “Things like machinist [classes] they probably don’t have, although they are so flexible and easy to work with that I am sure Glenda [Shorey, the adult ed coordinator] would find a way to do it.”
“The good thing is that we are able to customize the things they offer us, so as our equipment and its uses evolve, we have people who can take care of them,” said Bill Peterson, Lincoln Paper’s vice president of human resources.
Any business interested in acquiring individualized training for its workers can contact Northern Penobscot Tech at 794-3004.