Lee Kassler, department chairman of precision machining technology at York County Community College, talks about the equipment students use as he gives a tour to members of the Seacoast Shipyard Association. The SSA hopes to strengthen a partnership with YCCC to funnel qualified candidates into the shipyard apprenticeship program. Credit: Deb Cram | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — A workforce nearing 6,000, more than 200 years in the making, may be at risk of flatlining if stakeholders can’t find a way to cultivate a regional culture that is supportive of the trades.

The Seacoast Shipyard Association seeks to increase understanding and local partnerships to keep the educational feeder tubes, that send workers to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, well-oiled. Over the course of Fiscal Year 2018, it’s been estimated the shipyard will look to hire approximately 800 more employees, 400 of which would replace roughly 350 retiring workers. This colossal hiring initiative comes at a time when the United States desperately needs more tradespeople to fill workforce needs.

The shipyard has two apprenticeship programs: the four-year Trades Apprenticeship program administered jointly by Great Bay Community College and York County Community College, and the Worker Skills Progression program, a five-year program. SSA chairman John Joyal said while those programs see strong numbers, interest in the trades needs to be fostered earlier, among high schools, parents and guidance counselors, for example.

“This is one of the things I hope we can do as an association to collectively address the feeder tubes that go into the shipyard,” said Joyal, who retired after 40 years as a shipyard worker in 2017. “This is systemically an issue that affects our whole nation, but what can we do locally to fix that? What we can suggest to local schools, elected officials, communities what they should be focusing on to get the skill set back to where it needs to be?”

On Tuesday, SSA members traveled to York County Community College’s tech center in Sanford, where a precision machining technology program began in 2013. They met with instructors, students and representatives from the college to collectively discuss workforce development.

Lee Kassler, chairman of the PMT program, said 25,000 to 35,000 employees are needed in the United States to operate CNC (computer numerical control) equipment. On average, the country is graduating less than 400 students each year qualified for those jobs, he said.

“Our students get a tremendous education here, they are well sought-after,” Kassler said, noting Pratt and Whitney, General Dynamics and the shipyard recruit many of their graduates, 85 percent of which have secured jobs by the time they graduate. “These students, in five simple classes, can start at $18 to $24 an hour. And with a two-year associate degree, make between $24 and $34 an hour. There is tremendous opportunity in this field.”

In 2017, according to SSA’s most recent economic report, the shipyard paid $299,519,915 in wages to more than 3,800 civilian employees in Maine from more than 60 communities, with the Sanford/Springvale area topping the list with the most workers at 460, respectively. Part of that, Kassler said, is the Sanford School District’s “whole attitude is supportive of the industrial arts.” In 2015, Sanford voters approved a $100.2 million high school and technical center, the most expensive school project in Maine’s history. The school is set to open in the fall, with the technical center serving eight school districts and 22 communities.

“There is certainly a workforce development need in southern Maine and we’re part of that equation there,” said Sanford schools Superintendent David Theoharides. “I think what we’ve seen in the last 10 years, it doesn’t have to be push, push, push for college. It means getting students career ready. My motivation is let’s keep the workforce development going.”

Theoharides said he wants to get students out in the field sooner, taking classes that match their interests and identify skills at a younger age. The school district is exploring the possibility of a pre-vocational program at the middle school level, he said.

Diane Canada, director of Portsmouth Career Technical Education at Portsmouth High School, in New Hampshire, said her program has a long-standing relationship with the shipyard. Students in the welding program finish with industry certifications from the American Welding Society, and each year, four or five apply for the shipyard’s apprenticeship programs. That being said, Canada said her program faces obstacles in Portsmouth.

“We have a real challenge in the Portsmouth area with regards to students and their parents being interested in them pursuing the trades,” Canada said. “The vast majority of our students identify they want to go to four-year college. That is the crux of my job, to figure that out.”

Last year, Canada said she had to close PCTE’s construction trades program because of limited student enrollment.

“I can’t say enough how much I hope our students and their parents will be open to the variety of careers that are available for them here in our state,” she said. “Take a look at the world of trades today as opposed to the world of trades many of us grew up looking at. It’s changed so much. That mindset, ‘I don’t want my child to work in a CNC factory,’ because we have images of old shoe factories in our mind.”

Canada noted how lucrative many trades jobs can be and most workers don’t bear the burden of crippling student debt.

In 2017 alone, according to shipyard Public Affairs Specialist Libby Morin, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard reached more than 18,000 students and potential future employees through its workforce development efforts.

“Portsmouth Naval Shipyard consistently works to strengthen our community relationships in the development of our future workforce,” Morin said. “Over the years our STEM mentors have interacted with thousands of students at dozens of K-12 schools and universities, children’s museums, public libraries and various youth organizations in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

When asked if the shipyard is concerned by dwindling numbers of those entering the trades, Morin said the shipyard cannot speculate on the skill level of individuals in the area, however, the shipyard “has the ability to train workers and develop the skills needed to meet mission requirements.”

SSA Vice Chairman Mike Ralston, who helped organize the visit to YCCC’s tech center, said he’s concerned about modern day stigmas surrounding the trades.

“I see so many jobs waiting,” Ralston said. “I think guidance counselors and parents think the only way to go in life is a college education and I don’t agree with that. These trades are vitally needed. We’re just trying to do whatever we can to get people interested in the trades, with our ultimate goal as getting them hired on the shipyard.”

“You’ve got to have a requisite level of skills to go work on a nuclear submarine,” he continued.

Joyal said he hopes to put together a “regional brainstorming session,” where those with vested interest can essentially troubleshoot ideas to strengthen workforce development as it relates to the shipyard.

“My main concern is making sure those feeder tubes to the shipyard don’t dry up,” he said.

Despite the uncertainty of future workforce flow, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard remains the largest employer in the Seacoast, totaling $751.8 million in economic activity in 2017. And elected officials believe in the work they’re doing. On April 25, Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter announced the House Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act will include nearly $150 million for the shipyard to expand its capacity to repair the most modern generation of Navy submarines, the Virginia class.

Shea-Porter said while the new investments in the shipyard are great news for the Seacoast, “the nationwide shortage of skilled labor is felt acutely in our region, posing new challenges for the shipyard and straining the human resource offices responsible for processing new hires. The result is a hiring process that can take months just to on-board a single new employee in an environment where potential new hires have lots of job options, leading some to seek employment elsewhere.”

Shea-Porter has worked on the House Armed Services Committee to explore new options for expedited hiring, including expanded use of Direct Hiring Authority, which will help the shipyard bypass a “cumbersome hiring process.” In addition, she recently worked to reauthorize the Perkins Act, which supports state career technical education programs that train the next generation of skilled workers. The bill passed unanimously in the House but is still awaiting action by the Senate.

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