GOULDSBORO, Maine — As residents of the Schoodic Peninsula wait to find out if another company might be taking over the former Stinson sardine cannery, nearly 130 workers at the facility are weighing their options for life after the plant closes next month.

Some are waiting to see what happens, while others who have been at the plant for decades are likely to retire. But some are talking to state employment officials about what kind of retraining options they might have and what other kinds of jobs might be out there.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” cannery worker Donna Eklund said last week.

Eklund, 40, of Steuben said she has worked many jobs at the plant off and on since 1987, but also has worked as a certified nursing assistant. Like other employees at the plant, she has discussed her options with Maine Department of Labor officials, even though she might be able to stay at the plant if Bumble Bee Foods sells it to a new owner.

“I do have first aid [training],” Eklund said. “I could re-up my [CNA] certification through the Career Center.”

Laura Fortman, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, said last week that despite what might happen with the cannery, the workers there should strongly consider taking advantage of job re-training and placement programs. Workers who lose their jobs through plant closings or large-scale layoffs and who choose to take advantage of such programs end up finding other jobs more often than not, she said.

When the state Labor Department offers assistance to workers in such situations, about half of them accept it, according to Fortman. Of those workers who opt for a job re-training program, roughly 80 percent find new jobs in the field for which they were trained, she said.

Federal and state programs

There are three main federal programs administered by the state that provide assistance to workers who face economic layoffs. The Workforce Investment Act, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program and National Emergency Grants all provide federal funds for workers who lose their jobs because of the economy. For workers who are still employed, the state also has the Governor’s Training Initiative in which employers evenly split the bill with the state to have their workers’ skills updated or improved.

According to Adam Fisher, spokesman for Maine Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor decides whether laid-off workers are eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance or whether to issue a national emergency grant in response to a plant closing. Neither designation has been made so far for the pending Stinson’s closure, he said. The assistance Stinson’s employees have received, in which their individual skills and qualifications have been assessed, have been funded through the Workforce Investment Act.

Fisher said the state receives about $9 million a year in WIA funding. It receives an additional allocation of $3.3 million in Trade Adjustment Assistance funds and last year received more than $1.4 million in National Emergency Grant funding. All told, Maine received approximately $13.7 million in federal funds in 2009 for training and other assistance programs for laid-off workers.

From 1999 to 2008, nearly 18,000 displaced workers in Maine benefited from assistance offered through the three federal programs, Fisher said Wednesday. During the 2008-09 fiscal year, which is the most recent year for which figures are available, approximately 3,300 displaced workers in Maine received federally funded as-sistance, he said.

According to Fortman, how much is spent on each worker depends on the individual worker. Retraining programs for computer skills can take only a few weeks, she said, but others can take more than a year. Usually, the training is offered through adult education programs or through the state’s community college system, she said.

Fortman said the state tries to direct laid-off workers toward training that will boost their likelihood of finding new jobs. Training for a more obscure type of job that has low employment and economic potential is not going to be supported by federal assistance funding, she said.

Information technology, health care and “green” technology skills are expected to have the highest immediate demand in Maine, according to Fortman.

“That’s where we anticipate there will be job growth in the future,” she said.

Worthwhile effort

Rhonda Keyte, 51, of Sangerville said her experience with losing her shoe factory job more than eight years ago and then being retrained shows the effort can be worthwhile.

“Don’t look at it as a negative. Look at it as an opportunity to do something different and to reach a new potential,” Keyte said last week.

Keyte had worked as an upper cutter at Dexter Shoe in Dexter for 23 years when she was laid off in November 2001. Today, she is a mental health supervisor for offices in Bangor, Lincoln, Newport and Augusta.

“There was no way I could have gone out and found a job anywhere without an education to make the amount of money I was making at Dexter Shoe,” she said.

After she lost her job, Keyte listened to advice offered by those in the retraining field. She enrolled in refresher high school courses in mathematics and science and signed up for two courses at the University of Maine at Augusta. She had originally signed up for the pre-nursing program, but with no guarantee she would get in, she enrolled instead in human services classes.

Keyte said she studied and worked hard to re-enter the workplace, and it was worth it.

She views her layoff as a good thing.

“I probably would have been right there pounding away at a factory job until it killed me,” Keyte said.

Returning to work

Not all layoffs in the region turn out to be as permanent as those at Dexter Shoe, which no longer has manufacturing operations in Maine. Last year, for example, The Hinckley Co. laid off 90 people at its Trenton yacht production facility but later rehired approximately 30 in Trenton and filled 50 more positions at other Hinckley facilities on the East Coast.

Frequently, as might happen at the cannery in Prospect Harbor, a new employer acquires an industrial site and puts it to a new commercial use, though often with fewer jobs than existed before.

In Lincoln, 350 people work for Lincoln Paper & Tissue in a mill that employed 500 people seven years ago, when it was owned and operated by Eastern Pulp & Paper.

In Old Town, about 190 people work at the former Georgia-Pacific paper mill, now known as Old Town Fuel & Fiber. More than 450 people worked at the mill when Georgia-Pacific shut it down in March 2006.

In Brewer, Cianbro has employed as many as 500 people to construct building modules at the former Eastern Fine Paper mill site, where about 250 people worked at the paper mill when it closed in early 2004. But Cianbro had to lay off more than 100 workers last year and is considering laying off hundreds more if it doesn’t get more work orders.

James Nimon, senior economic adviser to Gov. John Baldacci, said Friday that efforts are still going strong to find a new owner to take over the sardine cannery from Bumble Bee. Because of federal catch limits on herring, as sardines are known before they are canned, any new use for the facility probably will involve processing of other kinds of seafood. Many state and local officials have said lobster meat would probably be its main product, but that as many as 100 people could end up working there again.

Nimon said talks are still progressing between Bumble Bee and a few prospective buyers, and that Baldacci is encouraging the San Diego-based firm to work quickly. The sooner a new owner might step in, the sooner the plant can be renovated and employees can return to work.

“We’re doing as much as we can as fast as we can,” Nimon said. “Stay tuned.”

Some plant employees have expressed concern that any new owner probably would pay many employees less than what they earn now.

But Fortman said workers who retrain for new careers can make more than they did before. Broadly speaking, she said, laid-off workers who take advantage of job training and placement services on average are earning more than $15 an hour in their new jobs.

“For some folks, that’s an increase in wages,” Fortman said.

This could be an improvement for many workers at the sardine cannery in Prospect Harbor, she said, but likely wouldn’t be an increase for a more highly skilled paper millworker, for example. The department’s goal, she added, is to have retrained workers earn at least 85 percent of what their previous wages were.

Fortman said retraining is always a good idea because the future is impossible to predict. Workers may be able to line up other jobs that don’t require retraining, she said, but some might want or have to look for another job even further down the road.

“Someone cannot take your training away from you,” Fortman said. “Training is always a good investment.”

Eklund, the Stinson’s worker, said that if Bumble Bee sells the plant, she and her co-workers will want to know who the new owner is as soon as they can. That way, they can figure out if they might want to continue working there or seek employment elsewhere, she said.

Eklund said she would prefer to stay at the plant instead of trying to find work again as a CNA. But if she had to find a new job, she said, she’s confident she would.

“I’m a forklift instructor. I’ve got all kinds of certifications,” Eklund said. “I should find one easy.”

BDN reporter Diana Bowley in Sangerville contributed to this story.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....