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January 23, 2012 | last updated January 24, 2012 11:14 am

Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership's mobile training targets jobless

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Consultant David Bragdon stands before the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership's mobile training unit

A new job training program preparing Maine's unemployed to work in the state's industrial sector is embracing a need-based approach to vocational training.

The Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership's Mobile Outreach Skills Training tailors its job training program to respond to the immediate needs of Maine's manufacturers. Run out of a high-tech mobile training classroom, the program is ready to roll where and whenever the need arises, according to Maine MEP consultant David Bragdon.

"We identify companies up front that have a need for workers, develop a customized training curriculum and work with career centers to identify unemployed workers, specifically veterans, in the area," says Bragdon.

Two weeks of intensive training is followed by eight weeks of on-the-job training and six months of career counseling, a thorough regimen that Bragdon says accounts for the program's success in other states. With over 1,000 programs throughout the country, M.O.S.T. boasts a 97% graduation rate, 95% job placement and 91% retention rate.

"It's that comprehensive approach that encourages a good retention rate. We train closely and then continue to engage with companies and trainees over a lengthy period of time," he says.

On Dec. 22, Maine's inaugural M.O.S.T. program graduated nine workers, including three veterans, with training in welding, in response to a need from Lewiston manufacturer WahlcoMetroflex. The company designs and manufactures diverters, dampers and expansion joints for use in power plants, refineries, chemical plants, pulp and paper mills, steel mills and incinerators around the world, and needed welders to meet demand for its products. The employees will start work with the company this month, pending a welding test, drug screening and medical examination, according to WahlcoMetroflex's Karen Witham.

Bragdon says Maine's manufacturing history ensures "a fairly large labor pool of workers who are interested in careers in manufacturing or getting back into careers in manufacturing. Getting a pool of qualified candidates is not a challenge," he says. He adds that manufacturing jobs tend to pay well and provide benefits and opportunities for advancement.

By working with companies directly, the M.O.S.T. program is able to strategically fill holes in Maine's work force and quickly respond to the shifting landscape of manufacturing in the state, says Bragdon. "Maine has a long manufacturing history, but clearly the state's manufacturing sector has transitioned in some ways in the growth of new sectors, like composites and electronics," he says.

Need for welders identified

Welding was chosen as the focus of Maine MEP's inaugural M.O.S.T. program based on feedback from some of the state's leading manufacturers. "BIW uses a large number [of welders], Pratt and Whitney, Cianbro — a lot of these companies spend a lot of money training welders for their needs. Our sense is that there is a real shortage," says Bragdon.

Bragdon accompanied the M.O.S.T. mobile training unit to Cianbro's Modular Manufacturing Facility in Brewer just before Christmas, where representatives from the contracting firm toured the unit and spoke of their need for well-trained welders. "They were curious to know what we used with simulated welding and I think they were impressed," says Bragdon.

The mobile training unit is equipped with virtual welding simulation tools made by Lincoln Electric, which provide real-time feedback and allow trainees to perform far more repetitions than they would in a comparable training program, according to Maine MEP. The unit was most recently used as part of a MEP training program at the Smith & Wesson factory in Springfield, Mass. Another training is planned for Kennebec County.

But the hope is for neither the unit, nor the program, to be limited to traditional trades. Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, says while Maine has a rich history in textile manufacturing and the pulp and paper industry, the state is lacking in training programs for the industries of the future. "You can't get certain kinds of training in Maine. Radio frequency technology, entry-level electronic assemblers, medical device manufacturing — that kind of stuff that is critical to a group of companies," she says.

A public-private partnership created under President Ronald Reagan and modeled on the Agriculture Extension Services programs of the early 1900s, Manufacturing Extension Partnerships operate a network of manufacturing extension centers providing business and technical assistance to smaller manufacturers in all 50 states. Funded in part by the Maine Departments of Labor, and Economic and Community Development, and the Unity Foundation, Bragdon says Maine MEP hopes the success of the M.O.S.T. program will eventually garner private investment from within the industry.

"We are hoping to be able to provide training free of charge to both companies and trainees," says Bragdon. "We want to encourage companies to expand their work forces and we certainly don't want to charge unemployed workers."

The M.O.S.T. program has received support from Labor Commissioner Robert Winglass and Gov. Paul LePage, who lauded the program's need-based approach to training. "It's training for a job, and ultimately a career, not training for training's sake," said LePage in a press release.

The M.O.S.T. program is just one program addressing Maine's unemployment. In December, the governor championed the Maine Industry Partnership, an initiative adopted out of Pennsylvania that provides a formalized infrastructure to address the "disconnect" between employers' needs and workers' skills, according to Martin.

LePage declared the Maine Industry Partnership model "the cornerstone of Maine's work force system," says Martin. The initiative has since been adopted by the state's Workforce Investment Board, where it will be employed to address a deficit in skills-training throughout the state.

"It will be less of a solution looking for problems and more 'here are the issues and the problems, let's bring the solutions to the companies'," says Martin. Programs like M.O.S.T., the New England School of Metal Works and the community college curriculum can be tailored to provide such solutions, she says.

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