Maine Machine Products Co. needs precision machinists. Badly.

When a customer contracts with the company to manufacture parts for anything from microwaves and airplanes to drilling systems and defense technology, machinists are the ones who make them. Without skilled workers, the business couldn’t stay afloat.

“They’re craftsmen,” said human resources manager Erika Douglass. “Someone just off the street cannot walk in and do what they do. They’re skilled, educated, very detail-oriented individuals. It’s an art. It’s definitely not anyone-can-do-this.”

So the South Paris business pays for precision machinist candidates to go to school. While they’re getting that two-year degree, the candidates are paid to intern with the company. And after graduation, the company guarantees them a full-time job.

A job that can pay up to $30 an hour, plus benefits.

But despite a 7.5 percent statewide unemployment rate and an economy in which $30 an hour is a coveted rate of pay, Maine Machine struggles to find qualified workers.

And the company isn’t alone.

Across the state, certain employers are searching for workers and paying a premium for people with the right training and skills. Math or science geek? Computer guru? Got a degree in health care? They want you.

The problem is, there aren’t enough of those workers out there. In the two job-creation workshops held by Gov. Paul LePage, employers consistently said one of their three biggest concerns was the lack of a skilled work force.

“I would say that’s the top one,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.

The governor believes the state’s higher-education system is greatly to blame.

“There is a gap between what the work force demands and what our schools produce,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to close this gap if we’re going to be competitive in the global economy. That’s the message that the governor is trying to reiterate and get out to the public so we can have a common understanding of where we’re at right now.”

Others believe the state’s higher-education system is doing what it can to meet industry’s needs. They say potential workers simply don’t realize what’s out there.

“It’s not just a job,” Douglass said. “You can have a career if you get into the machine technology field.”

758 jobs, 5 applicants

Some of the hottest fields in Maine right now are health care, computer science, high-tech manufacturing, sustainable energy and almost anything having to do with science or math, experts say. The numbers back them up.

Health care, for example, accounts for about 25 percent of job postings in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. And those jobs aren’t being filled easily. In August 2010, 758 jobs for physical therapists were posted, but only five people responded.

Glenn Mills, director of economic research at the center, is quick to point out that job postings aren’t the perfect measure of what’s out there. Not every job opening is posted. And some postings are for more than one opening. But they’re one way to gauge where the jobs are.

Another way is the center’s analysis of high-wage, in-demand job trends between 2008 and 2018. It predicts growth of 3 percent or more and 100 or more annual job openings for elementary school teachers (except special education), accountants and auditors, registered nurses, automotive service technicians and mechanics, truck drivers, maintenance and repair workers, and first-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers.

In some cases, that prediction has not come true. Experts expected a huge need for nurses by now — 16 percent growth by 2018 and 486 job openings a year, all for a position that pays nearly $22 an hour to start — but that was based on the expectation that Maine’s population of aging nurses would retire about now. Instead, nurses have kept working, hanging onto their jobs and steady income, as the economy soured around them. Some hospitals have even laid off nurses, tightening that job market even more.

But experts still believe registered nurses will be in demand in the coming years.

“What the economy has done and what health care reform has done is slow down our hiring, but it hasn’t slowed our aging,” said Judy West, vice president of human resources for Maine Medical Center and MaineHealth in Portland and a member of the Maine Jobs Council’s Health Care Workforce Planning Committee.

Although her hospitals aren’t in dire need of nurses at the moment, they do need information technology people to help deal with the massive electronic medical records system and analysts to help comb through the mountains of financial, quality and other data. Because those workers are so hard to find, her hospitals have resorted to recruiting, paying for current employees to be trained and hiring consultants to do the work for them.

“It takes us a long time to fill those jobs,” West said. “Many times, we have to go out of state to find them.”

Education required

No matter what field they’re in, virtually all jobs require more education than they used to. Machinists today use college-level math and technical skills. Preschool teachers are increasingly asked to take college courses. Mechanics need technical skills, critical thinking skills and training beyond high school to work on modern, high-tech cars.

Of the 10 careers with the most job openings and fewest applicants in August 2010, nearly all required some college and most required full degrees.

In Maine, vocational high schools and adult education programs offer some skills training and certificates. The community college system supplies higher-level vocational certificates and associate degree programs. The university system mostly provides bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Private colleges offer a mix of associate, bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

The community college and university systems are the ones people tend to gravitate to most for job training and higher education. Between them, they have nearly 60,000 students and maintain waiting lists for some of their most popular programs, such as nursing.

Both say they work with industry leaders and businesspeople to ensure their schools offer the programs that meet employers’ needs.

“We always have our ears out in the wind, trying to pick up the needs of Maine citizens, workers and employers. That’s what we’re here for,” said Jim Breece, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Maine System.

Although the university system has struggled to match employer needs in the past, Breece said many university programs today are advised by committees whose members are from industry. He said campus presidents also work to stay connected to their communities and the system meets regularly with the Maine Department of Labor to keep track of the state’s labor needs and trends. In recent years, it’s streamlined the process for creating new programs and has partnered with various industries — such as tourism and hospitality — to train the workers they need.

“If there’s urgency, then people will react differently,” Breece said. “And I think there’s a sense of urgency. I think everyone is very tired of the stagnant economy.”

Many community college programs also have advisory committees whose members are from industry. And the system can start programs at the behest of employers, sometimes getting donations from businesses, including precision machining equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars, to get a program off the ground or to keep it going. Sometimes, employers will open their sites for internships and will lead the community college to professionals willing to teach courses, a relief for schools that can struggle to find enough people willing to leave their in-demand, high-paying jobs for the classroom.

In the past decade, the community college system has dropped 40 programs that no longer met business needs and has added 75 that it believes do.

“Our colleges are able to respond to business and industry as quickly as, I think, it’s possible,” said spokeswoman Helen Pelletier.

‘Growing machinists’

Maine Machine Products Co. takes its community college partnership a step further than most. Since 1974, it has offered to pay the tuition, books and fees for people with a mechanical aptitude and interest to attend Central Maine Community College and get a degree in precision machine technology. Candidates must apply for the scholarship and must maintain a 2.67 GPA — a B- average — while they get their two-year degree. During school, they participate in a paid internship at the company. After graduation, they must work for Maine Machine Products for two years.

The company has dubbed it “growing machinists.”

In return, precision machinists get a free education and full-time jobs with benefits that include health/dental/vision insurance, vacation time, a 401(k) and a close-knit workplace where managers take employees out to lunch on their birthdays and give them grocery gift cards for Thanksgiving. After gaining some experience, they can move up in the company to become programmers and engineers.

“Four-year colleges are often pushed and pursued,” Douglass said. “Whereas with a two-year degree from Central Maine Community College, you have an opportunity to make a decent living and a career.”

Some, including the governor, believe Maine’s educational system isn’t doing enough to meet business needs.

“These employers are enthusiastic that the governor is listening,” said Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman. “The administration as a whole is listening. It’s been a while, I think, since businesses have had the ear in Augusta.”

In the past month, about 150 employers have attended two job-creation workshops. A third will be held in Lewiston on Nov. 17. Among employers’ concerns during the first two workshops: the cost of doing business and state regulations. An unskilled work force was at the top of the list.

The LePage administration plans to seek several education and work-force training initiatives in the next legislative session, including:

  • Pilot programs for five-year high schools, allowing graduates to leave high school with an associate degree or transferable college credit.
  • Making college courses more easily transferable.
  • Efforts to improve K-12 teacher effectiveness and changes to the public educational system to ensure that students who enroll in college are ready for college-level work.

The administration would also like to see apprenticeships get more attention, as well as vocational schools.

“(We want to) put more emphasis on the importance of vocational education because there are a lot of jobs out there that are good-paying jobs and they’re available. Right now,” Bennett said.

Good jobs: Get the word out

But the days when a student could attend a vocational high school and get a job right after high school are largely gone, experts say. They need some kind of higher education. And while some believe Maine’s educational system isn’t doing enough, others say it’s doing all it can.

“I have been extremely impressed with the responsiveness of the university system here in Maine,” said West, even though her MaineHealth and the Maine Medical Center have had a problem finding computer experts and data analysts.

“If there are any concerns we have or challenges on the supply side in working with them on our needs, they’ve always come to the table,” she said. “They’ve partnered with us, they’ve worked with us on curriculum design. We enter into a very aggressive dialogue about what are the needs. It’s a true partnership here in Maine, so I really believe there’s nothing we can’t do as the health care industry in partnering with the university and educational system here.”

Some believe students don’t realize where the good jobs are.

In October, Maine Machine Products offered a tour of its facility to all western Maine high school superintendents, principals and guidance counselors in the hopes they’d get excited about the business and the opportunities it can offer area kids.

“The next step will be to go to the schools and talk about it to the students and then invite the students and their parents here,” Douglass said. “I think it’s not a trade that is well-known. People often have an antiquated perception of what working in a machine shop is like. Back in the day, you know, it was dirty, it was dark, it was noisy. You come into our facility now and it’s cleaner than some other (non-machine) places I’ve worked.”

Although the governor’s office believes the state’s higher education system is greatly responsible for a workforce that lacks some in-demand skills, Bennett also agreed that too few students know what’s out there.

“We need to educate our kids as to where the jobs are,” she said.

Kyle Forsythe had no idea he’d like precision machine technology. The 20-year-old from Harrison vaguely remembers seeing the machine lab when his high school class took a tour of Central Maine Community College, but he didn’t even consider it as a career option.

“When I was in school, I was just always kind of led to believe that I would be going on to some sort of four-year degree after high school that would either be something in liberal arts or math, or something like that. I didn’t really think I’d end up doing something in a trade,” he said.

But he grew interested in the trades during high school. After graduation, he enrolled in CMCC’s automotive technology program. Halfway through the two-year program, he became enamoured with precision machining. He’d always been interested in mechanical work, in how things were made. Precision machining intrigued him.

“It’s kind of a niche in how precise everything has to be,” he said. “If you’re working in carpentry, you might be dealing with fractions of an inch. But it’s not uncommon to be dealing with ten-thousandths of an inch tolerances in machining. I think that’s a pretty cool challenge.”

So Forsythe split his second year at CMCC, dividing his attention between automotive technology and precision machining. He got his automotive associate degree last year. This spring, he’ll get his degree in precision machining. He’s considering getting a degree in engineering from the University of Maine in Orono or going straight to work as a machinist. Or, since he knows a place near Orono where he can work and go to school, he might do both.

Forsythe likes that he has so many options.

He would recommend it.

“There’s really room for most people who are willing to work hard and learn new stuff,” Forsythe said.

Top job prospects in Maine include the following professions and industries:

Health care

Jobs include: Anesthesiologist, dental assistant, doctor, lab tech, medical assistant, medical records and health information technician, midwife, nurse, nursing assistant, occupational therapist, occupational therapist assistant, paramedic, personal care aide, pharmacist, physical therapist, respiratory therapist, speech-language pathologist.

Education requirements: Vary, depending on the job. Nearly all require some training past high school. Many require a two- or four-year degree, and some require advanced degrees. In some cases, special licenses are required.

Pay range (median): $20,000 to $150,000-plus a year

Computer science

Jobs include: Analyst, computer and information research scientists, database administrator, information security analyst, IT project manager, network support specialist, software developer, software quality assurance engineer and tester, programmer, Web developer.

Education requirements: Experience in computer science and/or a two- or four-year degree, for most. Some require advanced degrees.

Pay range (median): $50,000 to $100,000 a year

High-tech manufacturing

Jobs include: Composites technician, industrial engineering technologist, maintenance worker, manufacturing engineer, precision machinist, quality control systems manager.

Education requirements: Some training past high school. Most require a two- or four-year degree. In some cases, special certification is required.

Pay range (median): $33,000 to $75,000 a year

Sustainable energy

Jobs include: Energy auditor, geothermal production manager, landscape architect, solar energy installation manager, solar energy systems engineer, wind energy engineer, wind energy project manager, weatherization installer and technician, wholesale and manufacturing sales representative for the industry.

Education requirements: Some training past high school. Most require a two- or four-year degree.

Pay range (median): $34,000 to $90,000

Math/science careers

Jobs include: Analyst, auditor, engineer, environmental scientist, financial services sales agent, GIS technician, mapping technician, mathematician, teacher.

Education requirements: Nearly all require a two- or four-year degree. Some require advanced degrees.

Pay range (median): $30,000 to $90,000

* Although these fields are seeking workers, not every job within a field may have openings.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Job/median salary

Accountant: $54,000

Automotive service technician and master mechanic: $34,900

Elementary school teacher (except special education): $45,600

Engineering technician (except drafter): $79,500

First-line supervisors/managers of administrative support workers: $41,700

Medical assistant: $29,300

Medical scientist (except epidemiologist): $96,500

Pharmacy technician: $27,500

Physician assistant: $84,100

Registered nurse: $59,100

Software developer (systems software): $84,300

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