Conservation Law Professor Marilyn Epp (middle) shows students Jack Maloney and Phil Mills how to create, prep and set the molds at a crime scene. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine at Fort Kent

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The lure of more money and benefits has drained Aroostook County of many young adults for decades, but recent efforts between the businesses who need the workers and the postsecondary schools training them are giving graduates reasons to stay.

With population declining and the median age rising, Aroostook County’s postsecondary schools shifted their focus in recent months from loose conversations with business leaders to a partnership model that gives students early career experiences. Rather than leaving students on their own for obtaining internships or other forms of on-the-job training, colleges and employers are actively creating those opportunities for students throughout their time in academic programs.

It’s too soon to know if the new approach will keep young adults in Aroostook County because the first students in such a formal arrangement — a nursing program partnership between the University of Maine campuses in Presque Isle and Fort Kent and the area hospitals — won’t graduate until next year. But business and education leaders have not waited to see those results. They already have expanded partnerships to trade, technical and business fields.

The University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Maine at Fort Kent and Northern Maine Community College all have formed groups made up of post-secondary and business representatives that review programming and tailor courses and degrees to the needs of The County workforce.

Of the three schools, UMPI has made the most aggressive changes to its curriculum. In the past two years alone, it has launched programs in agricultural science and agribusiness, nursing (in collaboration with UMFK), cybersecurity, computer science and health administration, signed an early degree completion agreement with the Maine School of Law, begun its first online master’s degree program and expanded degree options for its online competency-based program YourPace.

A first-level University Experience course helps first years adjust to college life by teaching basic skills — such as financial and digital literacies and time management — but courses being developed for sophomores this fall and another for juniors and seniors the following year will incorporate more on-the-job learning, Shannon Sleeper, UMPI’s new coordinator for the program, said.

Marcus Daigle, a 2020 graduate of Caribou High School, was a first-year student last year when UMPI launched University Experience courses.

Though Daigle has not decided on a major, he is interested in computer science and already has learned in his University Experience course how to reach out to potential employers.

“[The class] made me a lot less afraid to just call employers and see what they expect in an employee and what kind of experiences and skills they’re looking for,” Daigle said.

University Experience will be one component in helping at least 85 percent of UMPI’s student population complete experiential learning by 2025, Deborah Roark, executive director of university advancement and external affairs, said.

Businesses like MMG Insurance know the value of that approach first hand. Since 2012, the company has brought in 34 summer interns, many of whom have been UMPI, UMFK or NMCC students. Twenty-two of them entered full-time or part-time positions at the end of their internships. Of the 14 still with the firm, many serve as mentors and supervisors for the youngest interns and employees, according to Bryan Fuller, the company’s human resources business partner.

But one of the greatest needs in The County workforce is in health care. Colleges are formalizing partnerships between each other and potential employers to ensure students are prepared for those careers. NMCC is training medical emergency medical technicians with a new EMS simulation center, which will fill a local need for trained EMS professionals.

Another example of a secondary education institution creating programs to serve workforce needs is in nursing. Sixty-four students are enrolled in the nursing partnership between UMPI and UMFK, which connects more students living in central Aroostook to clinical experiences and post-graduate jobs at area hospitals.

Students in the four-year program take classes at UMPI and participate in lessons through the university’s new nursing simulation center, where they learn to conduct patient examinations, assist with childbirth and perform quick, life-saving measures during emergencies.

Prior to the UMPI-UMFK partnership, students only had access to four-year nursing degrees at UMFK. NMCC, located in Presque Isle, offers two-year nursing degrees.

“UMPI’s and UMFK’s nursing collaboration will be a huge benefit to us once those students start clinicals. We could be on track to start hiring [from that group] in 2022,” said Penny Wickstrom, human resources manager for Cary Medical Center in Caribou and its affiliated Pines Health Center.

That will likely be good news for students like Gracie Griffeth, who hopes to become an obstetric or pediatric nurse. A Fort Fairfield native, Griffeth intends to stay in Aroostook County after graduating in December 2022 and is open to working at any of the four County hospitals or other health care facilities in the region.

Griffeth said that she has never bought into the common view among young people that it’s necessary to leave Aroostook for more diverse job opportunities.

“I have seen so many people move away with this mindset and not flourish in their career,” Griffeth said. “It’s not about where you are, it’s about the opportunities that are right in front of you.”

Griffeth has embraced such opportunities in part thanks to faculty members’ commitment to connecting students with real-life work experiences, she said. In her first year, Griffeth completed a job shadow at Cary’s acute care unit and gained clinical experience at Maine Veterans’ Home. She also has completed clinical rotations at Houlton Regional Hospital and Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Still, Griffeth said, many high school graduates her age are unaware of what she views as the vast number of career opportunities in Aroostook.

“Colleges should reach out to high schools and create job shadowing opportunities to get these young students excited about their future and what they are able to accomplish here,” Griffeth said.

Although nursing is still UMFK’s most popular program, students also gravitate to programs with special relevance to rural Aroostook County, including conservation law enforcement, rural public safety administration and behavioral science.

Most recently, UMFK created certificate programs in substance abuse counseling and mental health rehabilitation — a direct result of conversations with local mental health providers.

UMFK faculty members connect students with employers long before their senior year. Students in the environmental studies, forestry and public safety programs have completed research projects with game wardens, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and law enforcement officials that led to them attaining jobs in their chosen fields.

“We had a student once who worked with a game warden on deer herd tracking. Another student did a project involving turtles living in the nearby rivers,” Nicole Boudreau, interim dean of arts and sciences and professional studies, said.

One of the larger employers of the St. John Valley region — Twin Rivers Paper Co. in Madawaska — is taking advantage of the partnership model as well. The mill is in discussions with NMCC to develop a noncredit program on specialized skills for industrial electrician and instrumentation workers. NMCC has an electrical program but it doesn’t include the advanced skills the mill needs.

“They’re always trying to understand what our needs are, which opened the door to us talking about the need to bring back the IEI program,” Al Martin, director of the mill’s organizational development, said.

That type of collaboration, along with regional and statewide data from the Maine Department of Labor, has been a staple of how NMCC develops and eliminates associate’s degrees, continuing education programs and workforce training.

Recently the college has been considering adjustments to the building construction program to better serve the latest workforce trends.

“In the construction industry, there is now a larger demand for commercial construction workers than for residential construction,” NMCC president Tim Crowley said.

Several NMCC programs with lower enrollment have begun seeing increased interest among prospective students. The plumbing and heating program saw 16 students enroll this fall but had to cap the classes at 10 students due to COVID-19 restrictions. Sixty-five percent of those students are graduates of Aroostook County high schools.

“We are seeing an increased demand for fall 2021 enrollment, with a higher number of applications than prior years,” said Griffin Goins, NMCC associate director of development and college relations, about the plumbing and heating program.

The demand might be, in part, thanks to new efforts to give high school students access to trade and technical education.

For David Harbison, owner of Harbison, Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning in Houlton, the problem in recruiting students comes from a lack of exposure to that trade in high school.

Harbison, who teaches plumbing and heating at Region Two of Applied Technology, said his classes are the only ones offered to high school students in Aroostook. He and others in his field have seen a shortage in workers over the last five years, especially from Aroostook County.

“There’s not enough people to replace the retirees. The jobs are out there, but it’s a matter of finding people who want to stay for those jobs,” Harbison said. “I get eight to 10 calls a day, but I have to say ‘no’ to some jobs or postpone some because I don’t have enough people. If I had even two or three more workers, I could expand.”

Correction: A previous version of this report misstated the number of students enrolled in Northern Maine Community College’s plumbing and heating program.