Skilled jobs are in need in Maine. Workers, employers, community and education leaders urged support for: PutME to Work- job training bill. Photo by Ramona du Houx
By Ramona du Houx
Nearly three dozen workers, employers, community and education leaders packed a legislative hearing on Monday to urge lawmakers to support a new job training initiative to grow good jobs and strong wages in Maine.
“The second biggest challenge we face is finding a pool of skilled labors to support our operation,” said Backyard President Stuart Jablon of Backyard Farms, a greenhouse grower of tomatoes.
House Speaker Mark Eves is spearheading the initiative, LD 1373, “An Act to Create the Put ME to Work Program,” which would invest $5 million over five years to provide job training through public-private partnerships within high demand industries, including logging, forest products, machining, construction and trades, healthcare and agriculture. The measure would also fund scholarships for workers and students to gain the skills they need to fill jobs in these growing sectors.
“Workers, employers, and community leaders came from across the state to share their message: invest in our workforce,” said Eves. “By investing in training for workers and students in every region of the state, we are putting a down payment on growing the middle class. Maine’s comeback story depends on growing good jobs and strong wages.”
Eves’ proposal comes as Maine ranks 49th in the nation for jobs recovered since the Great Recession, according to a new analysis released by Pew Charitable Trusts. Wages in Maine also lag ranking 20 percent lower, on average, than wages across the United States.
Lawmakers heard nearly three hours of testimony in support of the bill from loggers, wood products industry leaders, manufacturers, workers from Bath Iron Works, leaders from the state’s community college system, agriculture industry leaders as well as representatives from the Mayors’ Coalition, the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine and the state’s Chamber of Commerce.
“Logging is no longer walking into the woods with a lunch pail,” said Jim Nicols, who owns the Nicols Brothers’ logging company in Rumford. “The workers need to have extensive training on complex machines.”
Technology has changed the lumber industry and skilled labor is critical to meeting the growing needs. Retiring workforce also presented a need for new skilled labor.
“The average age of my employees is in the low 50’s. I am going to have to find new operators within the next 5-10 years and right now I have no clue where I am going to find them,” said Douglass Thomas owner of Logging and Forestry in Guilford.
Eves told the committee that the Put ME to Work bill could help answer the call for a more skilled workforce. He pointed to the success of the public-private partnership between Pratt & Whitney, York County Community College and other local businesses, which is helping to fill 1,200 new area jobs with Maine workers and students. The state invested $330,000 to create a precision machinist training program at the community college for workers and students to get the training needed for the high skilled jobs.
Barbara Finkelstein, president of the York County Community College, urged lawmakers to mirror the college’s model.
“Most of the graduates are going right into the industry and already have job offers locally. The have a marked competitive edge as they enter the workforce,” said YCCC President Finkelstein. “Upon graduating, they can make anywhere between $18 or in the low $20s as a starting rate.”
For months, Eves and a group of bipartisan lawmakers have been meeting with employers, workers, and community leaders on a jobs tour across the state to learn how the success of the partnership in York County could be replicated across Maine.
“On our jobs tour over the last few months, we’ve heard from loggers in Western Maine, from farmers in Central Maine, from forest industry products and wind industry leaders in Northern Maine: The workforce of the future needs to be high skilled. Technology and innovation is at the heart of every growing industry,” said Eves.
LD 1373 has support from members of both parties and is co-sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, Senator Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, Senator John Patrick, D-Rumford, Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, Rep. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, Rep. Bob Saucier, D-Presque Isle, Rep. Roger Sherman, R-Hodgdon, and Rep. Steve Stanley, D-Medway.
Lawmakers on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee could vote on the bill as early as Thursday.