BATH, Maine — Ethan Knight, a junior at Lincoln Academy, is a little out of the ordinary as students his age go. With a year and a half left until graduation, he sees a clear path to his career ambitions.
Knight, a first-year student in the Bath Regional Career and Technical Center’s electrical technology class, will be on the way after graduating to becoming a journeyman electrician, with hopes of someday working at Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield. By the time June rolls around, Knight and the other electrical and carpentry students at the school will have an advantage over many other potential candidates: real-world experience. Since the 1970s, the school has partnered with the local Rotary club to build modular homes that are then sold and installed in the Bath area.
“This doesn’t even feel like work,” said Knight and his classmates Monday as they installed lighting in the basement of a new home on Middle Street in Bath. “It’s like a day at the ballgame. This is fun.”
The job site, where students worked alongside professional contractors from Dirigo Custom Structures in Bath, was similar to many others but like precious few classrooms. For one thing, it was loud. Electrical teacher Steve Vachon struggled to have his instructions about the movement of temporary lighting heard over hammers pounding upstairs and the scream of table and skill saws nearby. But Vachon said the lesson for his students was to expect the unexpected.
“This is how it happens on a construction site,” said Vachon. “It’s nothing like a classroom.”
Since the late 1970s, students with the school have partnered with the Bath Rotary Club to build and install some 30 homes that have blended into community streets for local families. The Rotary club funds the projects and the students build the homes in pieces on a site off Congress Avenue. Some tasks, such as insulating, plumbing and the installation of drywall, are done by professionals, but the students are able to claim most of the structures as their own work.
Mike Baribeau, who oversees the Rotary club’s housing project, said the budget for each home is typically between $45,000 and $60,000, which the club recoups once the home is sold, usually for well below market value. The club typically makes a modest profit, which is reinvested into an account that supports the technical school, which serves RSU 1 students and Lincoln Academy. But even with brand-new homes built to precise specifications and bargain prices, the program has slowed in recent years because of struggles to sell the homes.
“We sell the houses for about what we have in them,” said Baribeau. “We had some difficulty selling this past one. It took us a lot longer.
Joel Austin, director of the vocational school, said selling the homes has been a struggle for the past three years. This year, he decided to step in.
“It didn’t sell during the summer when we needed it to be bought,” said Austin. “My wife and I decided to buy it and have done so. I think that’s a vote of confidence for our program. It’s a solid and affordable house.”
If the students complete two years of the electrical technology class, they can start 576-hour apprenticeships, after which they can sit for their journeyman’s tests.
Despite the potential of the program, the students know that a slack real estate market and fledgling economy mean their livelihoods aren’t guaranteed. Devin Mallard, a Morse High School senior from Bath, decided to enroll in the electrical class after watching his father, a carpenter, struggle to keep the jobs rolling in. He intends to follow up his vocational school instruction with a one-year electrical lineman course at a Maine community college. Like Knight, he hopes his skills and training someday lead him to a job with Cianbro. And he hopes his experience counts for something, too.
“This really shows what it’s actually like to be on a job site,” said Mallard. “It’s a great opportunity.”