MACHIAS, Maine — A popular grass-roots program that provides computer literacy training to small business owners in Washington County has received a new private-sector grant that will sustain and expand it through 2014.
The Portland-based John T. Gorman Foundation is providing a $300,000 grant to the Machias-based Sunrise County Economic Council to fund the technology training program, formally known as the Washington County Education and Employment through Sustainable Broadband Adoption Project.
The program was originally funded in 2010 through a $1.4 million federal grant provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce and its Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program.
Since its inception, the project’s ongoing, first-phase effort has provided 13,000 learning hours to Washington County residents, including targeted groups of lobstermen, wild blueberry farmers and health care workers. Free classes have covered basic computer skills, Microsoft programs and social media skills. They’ve been held at locations throughout the 2,568 square miles that make up Washington County, which is struggling with limited economic activity, 9.4 percent unemployment and the state’s highest poverty rate.
“This program is tied to the bigger issue of workforce development in terms of providing businesses and their employees with training in computer and digital skills,” said Harold Clossey, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, which has offices in Machias and Calais.
“It’s more than just adopting broadband technology; it’s knowing what you are going to do with it and how you put these resources together to grow your business,” Clossey said. “Businesses may not have all the hardware they need, or even know what they need. For many people this will be really basic stuff.”
Kathy Garcelon, who with her husband, John, farms 220 acres near Machiasport, said she was totally computer illiterate before enrolling in classes two years ago, when the program was launched.
“On a 10-point scale, I was at level zero and knew nothing except maybe how to turn a computer on,” she said. “The tutors and the teachers were all very patient, and nobody laughed at me. Now I would say I’m at level seven or eight and hope to learn more.”
Her newfound computer skills have proven useful in creating and accessing farm records related to cultivating two acres of wild blueberries and raising sheep and cattle on the couple’s Point of Maine Farm in Starboard.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” said Garcelon, who is 56. “I think people my age and older are not as comfortable with computer language and how to do computer things. I would recommend this program to anyone.”
John Drouin, a Cutler-based lobsterman who sets 800 traps, signed on for the program to assist with an ongoing effort to create software that addresses the specific record-keeping and reporting requirements that confront Down East families whose livelihoods are tethered to the lobster fishery.
Drouin described the lobsterman-friendly software project as “a work in progress,” but said it was desperately needed.
“I wanted to have input into what this software program would look like. There’s a tremendous lack of data in the lobster industry.”
Drouin saw the first version last summer.
“While it was workable for those who wrote the software, I wanted it streamlined and made more user-friendly for lobstermen to use,” he said.
The nonprofit Sunrise County Economic Council has partnered with for-profit Axiom Technologies of Machias to provide the technology training throughout Washington County. Axiom will continue to provide training, while the council will provide a business specialist who can work with businesses and their employees, one on one, Clossey said.
Axiom, in its turn, has partnered with Central Maine Medical Center College of Nursing and Health Professions in Lewiston, the University of Maine at Machias, Down East Community Hospital, the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education, Sunrise County Blueberry Cooperative and others.
Susan Corbett, Axiom’s CEO, said the project is addressing the needs of the Washington County workforce as a means of promoting economic development, creating jobs and encouraging lifelong learning.
“In a world connected by technology, all people, regardless of income, require access to information and communication technologies in order to be fully engaged members of society, both economically and socially,” Corbett said. “This community technology program is providing the citizens of Washington County with the digital and technical skills to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.”
The John T. Gorman Foundation, which is funding phase two of the program, invited the Sunrise County Economic Council to apply for the grant, according to Tony Cipollone, the foundation’s president and CEO.
The foundation bears the name of the Yarmouth native who founded it in 1995. As a grandson of L.L. Bean, Gorman worked for the iconic Maine outfitters for many years and shared in the Bean family fortune. Gorman died in 2010 at the age of 79.
“This is one of many special projects that we are funding,” Cipollone said. “We’re always looking for innovative approaches to advancing critical needs for specific areas.”
The $300,000 grant is one of 160 the foundation provided to Maine nonprofits in 2012 with a cumulative value of $6.1 million. Cipollone said he expects the foundation will disperse about the same amount this year.
The grant will help the program expand its reach. So far, the training sessions have been held at public libraries, high schools, career centers and other facilities that have on-site computer hardware and high-speed internet connections. The grant will help fund outfitting a classroom with 12 computers at Axiom’s office in downtown Machias, where tutoring sessions and classes could be held throughout the week, Corbett said. The grant will also fund the acquisition of 14 Dell laptops that will be able to travel to remote locations and to businesses that may have only limited computer capability.
“By having a mobile lab with traveling laptops, it won’t matter where the calls we are getting for training are coming from,” Corbett said. “The big focus over the next two years will be on businesses and their employees, now that we can go to those business with the traveling laptops.”
In order to measure the effectiveness of the program, the Gorman grant will also provide funds to allow the Knowledge Transfer Alliance at the University of Maine’s School of Economics to study the end results of this training in terms of job structures, salaries and other outcomes in Washington County.
Clossey and Corbett both seem eager to get the next phase of the project up and running, both knowing too well the extent to which Down East Maine remains largely a digital backwater in a global economy that is digitally based.
“We appreciate very much that the Gorman Foundation recognizes the need and asked us to apply,” Clossey said. “We’re ecstatic about it, and we are eager to show that we will put this money to good use in growing the Down East economy.”