BANGOR, Maine — A fledgling legislative committee put boots on the ground Wednesday, visiting the University of Maine and Eastern Maine Community College to field ideas for how to put people to work where they’re needed, when they’re needed.
State senators and representatives on the 15-member Special Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, which held its third meeting Wednesday, visited UMaine’s Advanced Manufacturing Center to learn about manufacturing, technology and commercial projects at the university before attending a public forum at Eastern Maine Community College.
“We are here because of what is possible for Maine and what is needed for Maine,” said committee co-chairman Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, during the EMCC meeting with a five-person panel representing economic development groups, higher education and business.
Democrats said in December that they planned to assemble a special task force to develop plans for cultivating a skilled workforce and helping small businesses as one of their first moves after an election that returned them to majority power in the State House.
The overlying theme the five panelists stressed: In order to improve employment, the state’s educational offerings and opportunities need to adapt, and the state needs to create an environment in which businesses will be able to create positions to fill.
Higher education institutions need to attract students to programs that prepare them to fill spots in industries that are aching for qualified, skilled workers, according to Jake Ward, assistant vice president for research, economic development and government relations at UMaine. Industries like nursing, machining and information technologies are pleading for larger pools of Maine graduates to pick from, speakers said.
“We try to be in touch with what the real world is looking for,” Ward said.
EMCC President Lawrence Barrett said the “blue-collar” Community College System will need to continue to adapt its offerings based on the needs of Maine businesses, with limited resources at its disposal. He said the system’s enrollment has grown by 40 percent in the past seven years, but state funding has only increased by 2 percent.
Scott Cuddy, director of business development for an electrical workers union that covers central, eastern and midcoast Maine, stressed the importance of apprenticeships, grants and paid internships in helping students attain the skills needed to join the workforce.
“I earned as I learned,” Cuddy said of the apprenticeship that gave him the training he needed to start a career in the industry. For many Maine students, the ability to get an education could hinge on their ability to have health insurance or make money to live on while they receive training.
Frank Woodman, director of Bangor’s United Technologies Center, highlighted the Bridge Year Program, which allows students to earn a year’s worth of college credits while they’re still in high school, helping their families save money and time as the students look for an avenue into the workforce.
He stressed the importance of programs that give students the skills they need without saddling them with debt.
Earlier in the day, some members of the committee toured UMaine’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, where they learned about the center’s efforts to help businesses get their products from concept to commercialization.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said as the committee continues to meet and travel throughout the state, it needs to continue to form ideas on how to fill Maine’s “skills gap” by producing college and training program graduates who can meet the demands of Maine’s businesses. To form that plan, “we realize we need to get out of Augusta,” Goodall said.