BUCKSPORT, Maine — Eastern Maine Community College, in coordination with Verso Paper and the town of Bucksport, is launching a new training program to prepare workers for the papermaking industry.

The program, which has been several years in the making, will be announced at an event Friday morning at the Bucksport Town Office.

“This really started almost four years ago when we had a meeting with the [Bucksport] Town Council,” Bill Cohen, a Verso spokesman, told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “They asked the question: What are the three things that keep you up at night? One of the highest ones on our list was the aging workforce getting ready to retire, and how were we going to replace that knowledge.”

The average age among production employees at Maine’s paper mills is in the mid-50s, Cohen said. He estimates that 45 percent of Verso’s 1,500 employees in Maine will retire by 2017.

“That’s a huge skills gap,” Cohen said, unless Verso, as well as Maine’s other mills that are in the same boat, can prepare a new generation of workers to accept the transfer of knowledge from aging workers before they retire.

The new papermaking degree program at Eastern Maine Community College was designed in conjunction with Regional School Unit 25, the school district serving students in Bucksport, Orland, Prospect and Verona Island. Cohen said the program will allow a student at RSU 25 to complete high school, enroll in Eastern Maine Community College’s papermaking degree program and graduate after only one year with an associate degree. Cohen said Eastern Maine Community College hopes to create cooperative agreements with other Maine school districts to allow their students to graduate from the program after only one year.

There’s currently a two-year papermaking degree program at Kennebec Valley Community College, but Cohen said it’s “not as innovative” as the new training program.

Bucksport is helping fund the program with money from a tax increment financing deal it provided in 2010 to Verso, the town’s largest employer and taxpayer, when the mill was planning a biomass conversion.

Using the TIF funds to create a papermaking training course was an intention from the beginning. The Town Council in February 2011 approved the expenditure of $4,300 to have Eastern Maine Community College begin the development of a curriculum for the course that’s now about to be launched.

“The really neat part about it is what started as creative, out-of-the-box thinking is now really going to come about,” Cohen said.

David Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director and vice chairman of Eastern Maine Community College’s college advisory council, was not available Wednesday afternoon to provide more details about the program.

George Gervais, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, will visit Bucksport on Friday to be part of the event announcing the new program.

“Bucksport is already one of our 24 ‘Certified Business-Friendly Communities’,” Gervais said. “This new program is further proof they are well deserving of that honor.”

Verso also operates a mill in Jay.

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.