Future engineers, meet your future employer

Posted May 09, 2012, at 5:34 p.m.

OWLS HEAD, Maine — As about 30 students spent a rainy Wednesday playing with robots they had built, representatives from some of Maine’s engineering-minded companies watched.

On the sidelines, employers that make synthetic heart valves and wind turbine blades offered tables featuring their own work.

Future engineers, meet your future employers — at least, that was the idea of the “Make it in America. Make it in Maine” conference held by the Manufacturers Association of Maine at the Owls Head Transportation Museum.

“These companies don’t know what they’re looking at yet. They really don’t,” said Chip Roche, chairman of the manufacturing association’s board. “They see a kid with a robot. They don’t see how many times that robot was taken apart and put together again. They don’t see the thought.”

Roche also is the owner of NewFab, a contract manufacturer of large machinery. His daughter is on a robotics team at her school. When one of her peers asked if he had any jobs, Roche didn’t. But he’s thinking of creating an internship for the young man anyway.

“I saw him with robotics, so I know I can give him a task and he will figure it out. I won’t have to worry about him,” Roche said. “The kids who do this have a big leg up entering the work force. It’s huge.”

The first part of the two-day conference, which runs through Thursday, wasn’t a job fair, Roche explained, but it was a good way to introduce young people interested in engineering to local technology companies and show Maine technology companies what robotics do for Maine students.

Parrish Lovell, an engineer with Webb Kentrol/Sevco, was fascinated with the basketball-shooting robots that adjust their shots to different hoop heights.

“A lot of these kids, if they’re interested in robotics, they’re probably interested in engineering. We might hire these kids one day, but it’s more likely we will sell our products to them. This just gets our name out,” Lovell said as he stood in front of his company’s table, which featured a vortex meter that measures the flow of gases.

Webb Kentrol/Sevco, which makes pipes and valves, is hiring for about 20 positions in Maine. A lot of those jobs will require an engineering background — preferably a college degree, Lovell said.

Across the room, a group of students from Falmouth High School took to the stage. The group designed an airplane as part of an advanced topics in engineering course that got the students to a national robotics competition.

Of the seven students in the class, five plan to go to school for engineering, one for public policy and one for architecture.

Jobs weren’t on Eric Sanderson’s mind when he got up to tell all the business representatives about the airplane project. He just thought it was neat that professionals who do this work in real life could see what he and his classmates did. But Kevin Conroy, also a senior at Falmouth High School, was there to scope out future prospects. He plans to go to the University of Maine next year to study engineering.

“I want to know what the job market is like,” he said.

From Tom Bickford’s point of view, the market is in his favor. There are engineering jobs in Maine — but not the people to fill them, he said. Bickford is the director of the nonprofit Maine Robotics, which helps organize robotics events in Maine schools.

Bickford compared engineers to professional football players. Tom Brady didn’t pick up football in college, Bickford said. He likely was playing as a boy.

“No one decides to be an engineer in college. They decide years ahead of time when they’re doing something fun and someone tells them, ‘that’s engineering,’” Bickford said.

He said most of the students he sees who stick with robotics clubs in their schools end up studying engineering.

“These kids are the future for technology companies in Maine. We have a huge lack of technology positions. A lot of companies have stopped looking for people here because they have not been there. They outsource because we don’t have trained people here,” Bickford said. “These kids are being trained to go into the engineering field.”

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