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December 10, 2018
Focus: HR & Recruitment

Businesses partner with community colleges to meet workforce shortage head-on

Photo / Courtesy of Kennebec Valley Community College
Photo / Courtesy of Kennebec Valley Community College
Students at Kennebec Valley Community College get training to prepare them to become line workers. Central Maine Power, which helped fund the program, has an ongoing demand for the skilled workers.

Fuel provider Dead River Co. desperately needs drivers. At Central Maine Power, the need is for line workers.

The Appalachian Mountain Club also needs trained workers for its hundreds of full-time and seasonal positions.

Those businesses are among the many that are partnering with the Maine Community College System in a focus on short-term training in response to the state's workforce crisis.

"We need full-time drivers for oil and propane deliveries, we need seasonal drivers," says Tracy Thibodeaux, director of human resources at South Portland-based Dead River. "We also need transport drivers, to drive the big rigs."

Dead River, which has long donated equipment and resources for training to the community college system, this year contributed six trucks for community college training. The company also made it clear how much it needed drivers, says Dan Belyea, executive director of workforce training for the community college system.

"[Belyea] came back and said, 'We're going to create a program,'" Thibodeaux says.

'In our wheelhouse'

Maine Quality Centers, a division of the community college system, matches its workforce training program to companies's needs. Since 1994, the program has since worked with 237 businesses — many multiple times — representing 15,068 new jobs and $2.5 billion in private investment.

In the past couple years that effort has gone into high gear.

There were 31 active programs in 2017 and 40 for 2018, says Helen Pelletier, director of public affairs for the community college system.

Partnerships focus on precision machining, paramedicine, plumbing, hospitality, health care, information technology and more.

"We're training people across the state," Belyea says. "We're not competing with groups providing existing services, we're amplifying it. We're doing what's in our wheelhouse."

High-demand, high-wage jobs

While the system hasn't lost focus on its one-year certificate and two-year degree programs, there's an energized focus on state residents who need better jobs and industries that need more workers immediately. "There's a high demand for training for high-wage jobs," says Belyea. "We're not training people for minimum wage jobs."

The state's workforce shortage — a unchanging pool of about 700,000 workers with many aging out and younger ones without needed skills — is coupled with the fact that 38% of Maine's high school graduates don't go on to, or complete, college or vocational training.

"I think everyone understands what's going on around us," Belyea says. "Everyone needs workers. Everyone."

High school graduates often get stuck in low-paying jobs, Pelletier adds. "They can't get a foothold."

While the cost or time commitment of getting a one-year certificate or two-year degree may seem out of reach, many of the system's new programs allow students to train quickly. Badging programs credit students for acquiring a skills they can use immediately or apply toward a certificate or degree.

The program embraces low-income students, as well as new Americans, veterans and those getting out of prison. "They're seeing opportunities they may not have seen in the past," Belyea says.

The growing number of badging initiatives, along with other immediate training programs that partner with businesses, include:

  • Medical assistant, certified nursing assistant programs at Eastern Maine, Kennebec Valley and Southern Maine community colleges in partnership with MaineHealth;
  • Manufacturing programs with Pratt & Whitney (machine operator, York County CC), Bath Iron Works (welding/manufacturing technology, SMCC), Cianbro (pipe welding/fitting, KVCC) and Saint Croix Tissue (certified production tech, Washington County CC);
  • Information technology with HERE Engineering (software developer training SMCC/Brunswick) and IT short-term training centers for certification, Central Maine CC, KVCC.

Keeping the lights on

Avangrid, parent company of Central Maine Power, contributed $250,000 toward the $1.39 million renovation of KVCC's Nutter Field House, which was outfitted as a training center for electric line workers. It opened in October.

CMP has a pressing need for line workers. Graduates of the KVCC program come out with an education, skills and safety training — making them productive from Day One.

Students in the program can earn scholarships. Following graduation, 91.3% are employed within six months, earning an average salary of $60,908.

Wheels on the road

The first graduates of the new commercial driver's license program at EMCC will hit the road in mid-December. It's the program that was created after Dead River talked to Belyea in the spring.

Dead River donated six used trucks, five of which are for training and one for use in the school's mechanics program.

It hires about 150 seasonal drivers to work across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts from October through April. It's been hard to find drivers for several years, but this year it's been worse.

"There are not a lot of new people coming into the field," Thibodeaux says.

Dead River's drivers also have to be certified for hazardous materials. The program at EMCC not only gets drivers a CDL, but also the hazmat certification. Graduates will be ready to roll when classes end Dec. 14. Starting in January, night and weekend classes will be added to the initial weekday program.

Trail to success

There is a large black-and-white photo of Katahdin's Knife Edge on the wall in Belyea's Augusta office.

"Some of the most exciting trails are here in Maine," he says.

His familiarity with Maine's woods and mountains helped when the Appalachian Mountain Club this spring asked about a program for skills badges, certificates and associate degrees.

The Boston-based organization has 200 full-time employees and 400 seasonal employees. It has invested $75 million in the Maine woods, including construction of three eco-lodges and nearly 100 miles of trails.

The program at EMCC will offer badges that lead to certificates and a degree to support Eco-Tourism Hospitality Management, and include coursework in customer service, food service, lodging, wilderness first aid and "high mountain" hospitality. It will include a pathway to a bachelor's degree and prioritize student recruitment from underserved communities, including some of the 90,000 youth that participate in AMC youth programs.

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