AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Monday the state’s public schools in recent decades have encouraged all students to work toward four-year degrees and that approach is unrealistic and “simply not defensible.”
LePage made the remarks at a State House news conference held to unveil a two-year, $300,000 public awareness campaign designed to interest middle- and high-school students in manufacturing careers.
“Not every child is going to go to college,” he said. “And we have a responsibility to our children to provide them with the opportunities for a good education. A good education is a game-changer for everyone.”
Joining LePage at Monday’s news conference were representatives from Maine manufacturing businesses and four students from Oakland’s Messalonskee High School.
The state’s community colleges, universities and career and technical education high schools are doing important work to prepare students for today’s high-skill manufacturing jobs, the governor said.
“I think there’s a lot of good things happening with our CTEs, the university system, the community college system,” LePage said. “They’re all part of this whole process of developing a manufacturing base.”
The public awareness effort, led by the Manufacturers Association of Maine, will lead to partnerships among schools and manufacturers that allow students to tour manufacturing facilities and participate in internships, said Lisa Martin, the association’s executive director.
In addition, manufacturing leaders will visit schools to discuss their businesses and careers with students.
Schools and businesses traditionally have struggled to set up such partnerships, Martin said, so the Manufacturers Association of Maine plans to hire a full-time coordinator to establish those connections. Also included in the outreach effort will be a new student-oriented website that allows kids to explore manufacturing career options and videos that show where products manufactured in Maine end up, said Paul Tyson, an association member and general manager at Thermoformed Plastics of New England, located in Biddeford.
“It’s really going to have a great impact,” Martin said.
Paul Stearns, superintendent of School Administrative District 4 in Guilford and president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said he largely agreed with LePage’s assessment that schools have focused on preparing students to pursue four-year degrees. But that’s because past state policies have de-emphasized the importance of career and technical education, he said.
“Schools will tend to do what the government asks them to do,” Stearns said.
LePage said the Department of Economic and Community Development will invest $50,000 in the manufacturing jobs initiative. The Manufacturers Association of Maine plans to raise the remaining $250,000 from its members.
Manufacturing jobs provide the basic infrastructure that helps communities flourish, LePage said.
“It’s the bricks and mortars that go along with the jobs,” he said. “It’s the families that go and live in these communities. This is what we need, particularly for the young folks so we can keep them here in Maine.”
Maine’s manufacturing sector has consistently shed jobs in recent years, according to state Department of Labor statistics. In 2011, the sector employed about 51,000 people in Maine, compared to about 79,000 in 2000.
But the sector isn’t dead, the governor said, and manufacturing jobs pay well. The average manufacturing wage in 2011 was about $50,000, compared to an average of $38,000 for all other Maine jobs, the labor department statistics show.
“I’m proud that these companies in Maine are really innovative companies that are really on the cutting edge, and particularly in machining,” he said. “It’s just incredible some of the stuff that’s happening, and it’s really exciting.”
A 2010 Department of Labor analysis projected that employment in the manufacturing would continue to drop between 2010 and 2018, losing another 10 percent of its jobs. But the analysis predicted employment growth in chemical, plastics and machinery manufacturing.
Manufacturing business leaders at Monday’s news conference said they’re starting to have trouble finding skilled replacements for retiring workers.
“We need young people with the skills and aptitude to run these machines,” said Bob Maynes, marketing director for the Belfast windows manufacturer Mathews Bros. “We need to know who will take us through the next 159 years.”
“Our workforce is aging, and as they retire, there is not necessarily a pipeline of replacements coming up behind them,” said Alexandra Ritchie, director of government and community relations for the New Hampshire investment firm Cate Street Capital. “We need to cultivate that pipeline.”
Cate Street Capital in 2011 bought the Katahdin Paper Co.’s shuttered mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket from the previous owner, Brookfield Asset Management. Cate Street Capital has reopened the East Millinocket mill and is exploring the possibility of having a torrefied wood facility at the site of the closed Millinocket mill and turning the mill property into an industrial park.
In addition to industry-specific training, LePage on Monday said employers could benefit if it were easier for young people to get jobs earlier in life so they can gain workplace experience and pick up basic job skills.
“Allowing a child to wait until 16 years old to get their first job in life is too late in life,” he said. “It’s like my trying to learn Russian.”
Currently, Maine requires any student 15 or younger obtain a work permit in order to get a job, and the local school superintendent has to sign the permit to indicate the student is in good academic standing.
LePage also said Maine’s community colleges need more capacity so they can shrink wait lists for key programs and turn away fewer students seeking training. He said he’s working on a solution to provide the Maine Community College System with additional resources. His budget proposal keeps community college funding at its current level for the upcoming two-year budget cycle.
“It’s much longer-term than snapping your fingers when you’re broke,” LePage said.