U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta (left) and U.S. Senator Susan Collins speak to the media during a visit at the Cianbro Corporation training facility in Pittsfield Tuesday. Credit: Gabor Degre

Since the state’s largest construction and contracting company began offering its own employee workforce training in August, more than 1,000 employees have received 53,000 hours of training — a feat that was praised by U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta and Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

“These are programs that are making a real difference in making sure Mainers have the skills they need to get good jobs and to stay in Maine,” Collins said, standing next to Acosta at the Cianbro Institute in Pittsfield on Tuesday.

“Our workforce is growing older. We need to make sure that we encourage our young people to stay in Maine,” she said. “Cianbro programs do ensure that workers have the skills they need.”

Across the country, there are approximately 6.6 million open jobs and virtually the same number of people in search of jobs, Acosta said. The “mismatch” of individuals looking for jobs and those hiring is a “reflection of the skills gap,” he said. “One way to address that skills gap is through workforce education like we saw here today.”

Accepting Collins’ invitation, the pair toured the Cianbro Corp. training center and headquarters Tuesday afternoon, which included slipping into classrooms to observe what Cianbro employees were learning.

The training center offers Cianbro employees comprehensive job training and apprenticeship opportunities in exchange for pay — a perk that allows Cianbro to ensure its employees’ job and safety training is uniform. The training also functions as an incentive for employees, whose in-house training doesn’t require them to take time off work or dip into their own pockets, Cianbro Chairman and former CEO Peter Vigue said. His son, Peter “Andi” Vigue succeeded him as CEO on Jan. 1.

Cianbro employs approximately 4,000 people across the country, more than a third of whom live in Maine. Some of its ongoing projects include the Bangor Savings Bank campus on the banks of the Penobscot River in Bangor, the new WEX campus in Portland, and two federal contracts: one with the U.S. Navy to make improvements at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, and another with the U.S. General Services Administration to replace a port in Alexandria, New York.

Gone are the days of sending equipment operators, welders and millwrights to a third party for training, Vigue said.

In the past, Cianbro employees “would end up having to go to an organization that would educate them and they would, in many cases, have to pay for it. In our case, there’s no expense to the individual, no cost to them at all,” Vigue said. “We pay them while they’re being educated and trained. We don’t have to rely on a third party to do that on our behalf.”

“We feel we’re the beneficiaries of a workforce that is talented and skilled,” he said. “The only way we have found it to be efficient and satisfy our needs is to do it internally.”

The success Cianbro has found in its model is something that should be financially supported at the federal level, Acosta and Collins agreed.

“Certainly a role for the federal government is to do quite a bit of workforce training,” Acosta said.

Both federal officials took less defined stances on how an increase in the state minimum wage would play a direct role in Maine’s overall economic and workforce growth.

“I can say that on the federal level, I believe that we’re overdue for an increase in the minimum wage … but I don’t see that coming up this year,” Collins said.

“The great thing about learning more skills and getting more education is your wage or salary is going to go up regardless of what the minimum wage is,” she said.

Acosta agreed. As unemployment drops, he said, “we’re seeing an increase in wage rates, particularly at the lower wage levels.”

Varying wage levels create a healthy incentive for both employees and employers, Acosta said. “I think it’s healthy when businesses have to compete a little bit to attract the best employees.”