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June 8, 2018

Legal settlement helping Maine address its shortage of plumbers

Four Maine high schools that were selected by the Attorney General's Office to start plumbing training programs with funds received from a consumer protection settlement are beginning to make a dent in the shortage of plumbers in Maine.

In the 2017-18 academic year alone, nearly 100 students at the four high schools — Mount Blue High School in Farmington, Lewiston Regional Technical Center, Oxford Hills Technical School, and Biddeford Regional Center of Technology — received training in the plumbing trade, according to a news release from the Maine Attorney General's office.

In Maine — and nationally— there's a skilled trades talent shortage, in part due to the high number of people retiring from the field. In Maine, the average age of plumbing and heating contractors is over 55. In 2016-17, the global staffing firm Manpower reported that skilled trade vacancies are the hardest jobs to fill in the country.

"It's not often enough that we see such tangible and immediate results from an investment. In just three years, this funding has opened doors for hundreds of Maine young people to learn new skills and potentially take an important step toward a rewarding and sustaining career," Attorney General Janet T. Mills said in the news release. "It's also helping to fill a much-needed skills gap among our trades professionals. During the past couple of years of these programs, we've seen example after example of local plumbers stepping up and going above and beyond to mentor and train these young people. That's a win-win for our students, our employers, and our communities."

Mills is one of seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates who are running in Tuesday's primary election. The other Democratic candidates are: Adam Cote, Donna Dion, Mark Dion, Mark Eves, Diane Russell and Betsy Sweet.

2015 case paid for the program

Funding for the high schools' plumbing programs comes from a 2015 settlement that Mills reached with Bath Fitter of Portland for engaging in unlicensed plumbing activities, using non-conforming construction contracts, installing plumbing before plumbing permits were issued, misrepresenting employees' license status, and engaging in plumbing installations that may violate the Maine State Internal Plumbing Code.

The settlement, reached by consent judgment, included a monetary penalty.

The Attorney General's office determined that it would use the $500,000 in settlement funds to support four plumber training programs aimed at filling the plumber shortage in Maine.

Each of the four high school selected by Mills received approximately $120,000 for two years to start the programs.

According to annual reports submitted to the AG's office, in addition to classroom training, students worked with local plumbers on projects in their community.

For example, students from the Farmington area installed plumbing for the office of the Western Maine Community Action. Students attending Biddeford Regional Center of Technology partnered with local plumbers, Local 716 and the Rotary Club. Additionally, students from Biddeford and Lewiston each participated in and won student plumbing competitions that included students from the community college system.

This past spring, Lewiston Regional Technical Center co-hosted a Totally Trades event at Central Maine Community College, designed specifically to introduce eighth- and ninth-grade young women into the trades.

Many of the participating plumbing students have continued their studies either through paid internships or going on to plumbing programs at post-secondary institutions.

Directors of the programs, in their annual reports, said the investment in the plumbing training is paying dividends, both in fostering greater interest in the trade and, in one instance, helping a student at-risk of not graduating find "his passion" and end up graduating. That student is now employed by a local plumber.

Programs to continue

Mills said although the initial seed money is now used up, the success of the pilot programs prompted all four schools to secure either private or public funding to continue and, in some cases, expand their plumbing programs.

"Students, parents, teachers, school administrators, employers and community groups have experienced the benefit and seen the results of having an early plumber education program in their community," she said. "And now, they're willing to find the resources to sustain the training into the future. I'm proud that our office was able to ignite that interest and support."

In the Farmington area, the news release stated, local business owner Richard Bjorn has offered to donate $235,000 each year for two years to that the program can continue and increase offerings such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) training.

"These trades make great careers for men and women," Mills said. "I was heartened that the top student last year at the Farmington site was a young woman. Young women can and do succeed in these programs and I hope more are inspired to seek out the skilled trades."

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