PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — State lawmakers met with major employers, workers and students during a two-day tour in Aroostook County, in an effort to learn what can be done to improve wages, help grow existing businesses and attract new ones.
Aroostook was the second stop on a statewide jobs tour, led by House Speaker Mark Eves. He kicked off the tour last month in York County when he proposed spending $5 million over the next five years to create public-private training partnerships across Maine.
“The purpose is to regionally identify and work within partnerships — public and private — to grow jobs and wages. We’ve spent two days in The County, primarily learning about the forest products industry and its need for a trained workforce,” Eves said.
Eves said it’s particularly important to begin training the workers of tomorrow, given the ever growing number of people retiring throughout the state. He said such training is already under way through the state’s community colleges.
“Northern Maine Community College is a good partner. The college is working to address the training needs of Maine businesses and beyond. It’s up to legislators to determine how the state will invest in the strategy, to increase opportunities for good-wage jobs and for communities to attract the businesses that will provide them,” Eves said, during a luncheon Feb. 20 at the college.
Eves and fellow legislators also toured McCain Foods in Easton and J.D. Irving’s sawmill in Ashland.
“McCain focused on the need for trained employees. They need people to run boilers and other equipment; that’s what they and others need. J.D. Irving needs millwrights,” he said.
Eves said what is needed is a “grassroots effort by industry leaders, who need to take a leadership role,” Eves said. “The wood products group is doing just that.”
Eves joined state Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, and other legislators for lunch at NMCC’s Edmonds Center, with college President Tim Crowley providing an update on campus programs and how they factor into the businesses of tomorrow.
Crowley stressed the importance of focusing on ways to grow the economy, through maximizing the workforce and bringing more industries to the region. He noted how many of the college’s programs, including wind power and nursing, align with the Universiy of Maine at Presque Isle and UMaine at Fort Kent to further enhance a student’s educational experience and marketability.
He noted Husson College’s graduate program, offered at its satellite facility on the campus, provides another option for advancing education in The County.
“We’re also concerned about the health and welfare of our region. If one is not healthy, they won’t benefit the workforce. Workers are more competitive and productive when they’re healthy,” Crowley said. The community college’s new wellness center opened in the last year, providing year-round access.
Crowley said the use of alternative energy sources continues to grow and will benefit northern Maine.
“Biomass boilers burn pellets and chips. We could be energy-independent in The County if we figure out how to move electricity out of Aroostook,” he said. “We’ll never benefit from natural gas. Our future is wood to energy.”
To make existing businesses more competitive and to attract new ones, Crowley said more needs to be done to address the needs of employers seeking a trained workforce.
“Manufacturers moving here are in desperate need of trained staff — everything’s going computerized. But much of this is non-credit training to keep the workforce up-to-date to keep manufacturing going. There’s a huge need in the region,” he said.
Crowley said commercial drivers are also needed. Northern Maine Community College is the only facility offering a commercial driving course in the community college system.
“That’s an important piece. You can’t take advantage of biomass capability if you can’t get the wood from the woods to the plant. That’s part of what we’re working on with logger training. It’s a significant issue,” Crowley said.
Crowley said much of the equipment now being used in the logging industry is “much more technical and expensive.
“If you can’t compete, you won’t be successful,” he said.
Crowley noted that wind power was a “big part of what we’re doing now, training techs who can work in that industry.”
He said while many of the college’s programs are taken by students to earn credits, many participants take them as non-credit refresher courses or to learn a new skill. But providing this training comes at a cost, which the college can’t continue to cover without additional funding.
“We need support through appropriations to meet NMCC’s needs. We were flat-funded last year and may be again this year. Flat funding is not a good option. We can’t keep manufacturing here if flat funding continues.Technicians are needed to grow businesses, machinists are needed for wind power. Mining will have a tremendous impact on NMCC,” said Crowley, noting how when businesses like these come to an area, it depletes the workforce. “DFAS created a gap at the bottom, by taking all the best accountants away from area businesses. They say that will happen with mining, particularly with hydraulics.”
Crowley said NMCC has no debt and that he and his staff “run a tight ship.”
“We’re a good investment to grow the workforce in the region,” he said.
He said a partnership to support manufacturing was necessary because those manufacturers need people who are trained. Crowley said the problem is coming up with the funding to continue to provide training in the latest technologies.
“There’s nothing in our budget to go after training. Donors donate for facilities and equipment, but not the instructors and training materials,” Crowley said.
Eves said legislators are currently working on a bill to help address public-private partnerships. He said a scholarship is also in the works.
“The question is ‘What do we need now?’ I think we can make this a bipartisan effort. The synergy’s there. What will push this over the line is having you work on this. It’s important to have you there to testify or publicly support. We can do this together. It’s about jobs. There are good things going on in The County,” Eves said.
“There’s interest on the private side. I just came from Irving, where they provided something like $30,000 per employee to train harvesters. We need to see investment and leadership on the business side,” Eves said.
Crowley said he thought companies would be willing to invest.
“They have needs and will step up with dollars,” Crowley said.
Brett Stratton of Ashland is a senior in the precision metals program. He shared his experience as an intern with General Electric.
“I and two classmates interned with General Electric. They told us they’d been all over trying to hire people. They gave us jobs before we left, paid our school. Businesses would be stupid to not invest in programs like this, offering cutting-edge technology and lab experience,” Brett Stratton said.
“It’s not uncommon for students to have jobs before they leave NMCC,” Crowley said. “The demand is there. Industries recognize what we do — in nursing, machining, etc.”
Saucier said these tours were a great opportunity to hear first hand what businesses need to prosper.
“Throughout these tours, I hear the same thing — how impressed employers are with the Aroostook County work ethic. Business after business tell me that if a person’s from The County, they’ve got a job,” Saucier said.
“These tours are a great opportunity to learn of industry needs and what we can do to address them,” Saucier said.