The 1 million-square-foot Pratt and Whitney Corp. plant in North Berwick is cavernous. Industrial fans hum throughout the floor hushing the din of computerized machines that churn out sparkling engine components for commercial aircraft and jet fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The ceiling is vaulted high with three-prong fans that spin at a languid pace, and just about everyone in sight seems to be beyond the distance of conversation. A black tricycle is parked to deliver parts to distant sectors of the plant. Of the 1,329 people who work in this factory, 1,000 are full-time machinists. The plant, one of the largest buildings in the state, is growing; operators expect to add 100 to 200 more hires over the next few years. Yet plant manager Peter Borgel and communications officer Steven Howe see a dearth of young workers prepared to take on manufacturing jobs in southern Maine. "The pool of trained machinists available for hire has dwindled to nonexistent," says Howe.
Pratt and Whitney Corp., a United Technologies Corp. owned-company, reported a $1.99 billion operating profit on $12.94 billion in revenues last year. Even so, the North Berwick plant took a hit in the recession, dropping from 1,600 employees in 2005 to its current level. About two-thirds of those who left had reached retirement age. Now the plant is preparing to ramp back up, thanks to new projects, including the exclusive right to make engines for the F-35 fighter.
Pratt will release its first work-ready F-35 engine this month, and is scheduled to make 40 to 50 F-35 engines a year by 2016. Borgel says he has recalled all workers from the recession-driven layoffs, and conceding retirements, will have to put some effort into recruiting machinists. The plant gets 100 applications a month, but very few have the associate-level training required to operate Computer Numeric Controlled machines, the digital machines that can mill and lathe parts to 1/5000th of an inch. "From this point, we are going to be growing a work force that begins with some level of technical training," Borgel said.
Pratt isn't alone. Other Maine manufacturers, including nearby Arundel Machine Tool, are grappling with the shortage of trained workers, while at the same time opportunities to grow beckon — a situation industrialists and educators say is most problematic in southern Maine. The problem has led to a new program from the state's manufacturing trade association, and increasing pressure on Maine's technical schools and community colleges to rise to the challenge of raising a new work force.
On April 21, a group of manufacturers met at York County Community College with representatives from the Biddeford Saco Economic Development Corp. to discuss the impending shortage of workers. According to William Armitage, BSEDC's executive director, the consensus was that 100 to 200 new manufacturing workers per year would be needed for the next five years in southern Maine.
"People are starting to get up there in age," says Armitage of employees at Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, among others.
Noting the trend, John Bolduc, who leads the manufacturing program at Southern Maine Community College, has devised a two-semester "fast-track" certificate program that will begin this fall. "Recruiters are coming up from Massachusetts and New Hampshire and saying 'I need 10 guys', and I'm saying, 'I don't have 10'," Bolduc says. He graduated 25 students from his program last month, and every one has a job lined up, he says.
"The pool of trained machinists gets shallower each year," Howe says. "The fast-track concept was developed as a speed [to work force] thing."
Earlier in April, a small cohort of 15 to 20 manufacturing industry leaders gathered in Augusta to discuss obstacles in their growing sector. Lisa Martin, executive director of Manufacturers Association of Maine, ticked off the big ones: a largely retirement-age work force that cannot sustain orders from growing clean tech, medical device and aerospace industries; the need for heightened attention to math and science in school; and recalcitrant perceptions by youth that manufacturing is inglorious, hard-on-the-body work.
Martin says it would take a "manufacturing revolution" to meet the needs of industry, and a shift in thinking about the value of manufacturing jobs. The industry, with its median wage of nearly $40,000 a year, can drive more of Maine's economy if it can recruit a trained work force. To that end, MAM unveiled a new campaign, Make it in Maine, which calls for tight-knit partnerships between industry and educational institutions, specifically vocational-technology, or "votech," programs at the high school level and community colleges.
Patrick Shrader, vice president of sales and marketing for Arundel Machine Tool Co. Inc., says such relationships are lifelines to small machine shops such as his. "I'd hire eight to 10 employees a year if I could find them," he says. The 25-year-old company employs 62 and grew its revenue by 32% last year, he says.
Arundel Machine recently took on Tyler Tagrrien, 17, from a votech program at Sanford Regional Technology Center. Tagrrien attends high school from 8 to 10:30 a.m. each day and trains at the machine shop from late morning to 5:30 p.m. "I knew this guy who was a machinist just out of high school," says Tagrrien. "He was telling me about all this money he was making, and I said, 'That's kind of cool'." The company starts entry-level machinists at $10 to $11 an hour and community college graduates at $16 to $18 an hour.
John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, says Tagrrien is among a small subset of Maine high schoolers considering manufacturing as a long-term career. The community college system reports its precision manufacturing programs grew from 237 students to 269 students between 2002 and 2010, a small increment compared to its overall enrollment rise from 10,127 to 17,779 over the same time. Fitzsimmons says the growth of the precision manufacturing program has, in part, been constrained by the system's budget; Computer Numeric Controlled machines are expensive to operate and take up a lot of space.
Manufacturing is "one of the most expensive programs we run," says Fitzsimmons, noting the cost of a CNC machine nears $100,000. The community college system is the only academic institution in the state that has the ability to train students for manufacturing, says Fitzsimmons. "We need to be producing more skilled workers for industry than we can currently provide," he adds, a situation "most acute in southern Maine."
SMCC is one of about five schools in the system that provide CNC machine training. This session, legislative delegates from York County backed bills to build a precision manufacturing program at York County Community College. But some local manufacturers aren't waiting for new programs to be created — they are recruiting directly from Sanford Regional, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology and Spaulding High School to field talent. Shrader, of Arundel Machine Tool, now hires high school graduates and pays them to attend community college. "To be honest, next year I'm going to [recruit at] the middle school," Shrader says.
His company is located in a nondescript building on Technology Drive. Inside, a steady din rolls through the facility as CNC machines the size of gondolas spin aluminum parts on lathes and mills. Water sprays them constantly to keep temperatures down, making it look like a cluster of washing machines hard at work. Employees set the values for the machines on computer screens and the inspect shining metal components that are destined to become part of a nuclear warship, a 747 jet liner or a high-tech military rifle that can shoot bullets around corners.
The company supplies 10 to 12 larger contractors such as General Dynamics and is among a cluster of growing subcontractors looking to hire, including Maine Machine Products Co. of South Paris, Met-Craft Inc. of Auburn, Precision Screw Machine Products Inc. in Saco, Titan Machine Products Inc. in Westbrook and Kennebec Technologies Inc. of Augusta, the last of which is preparing for an 11,400-square-foot expansion.
The growth of these small machine shops is tethered to high-tech subcontracting in aerospace, medical device and clean energy fields, says Martin of the manufacturers' association. She cites Custom Composite Technologies Inc. of Bath, which makes composites for aerospace and boat building; Rynel Inc. of Wiscasset, which makes a medical foam to heal wounds; and Southwest Harbor-based Flagsuit LLC, which has been awarded a NASA contract to design space suit gloves for astronauts. The Make it in Maine campaign is based on a new high-tech vision of manufacturing that promises safe and clean working environments, living wages and value-added products that can be considered miniature innovations, she says.
The campaign is centered on recruitment and training of the work force, but also intends to integrate a higher-level initiative of networking manufacturers into industry clusters. The first of these so-called "cluster initiatives" was started about three years ago as the Maine Aerospace Cluster, a division of the manufacturer's trade association. Richard Grich, who leads the cluster, said the federal Department of Labor had pegged the state's aerospace sector as a single company with $63,000 a year in revenue.
But a $50,000 seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute, which started the cluster, funded a study that revealed 77 Maine companies making aerospace parts, accounting for $500 million a year in revenue and none of it classified by the federal government as falling under the aerospace industry.
MAM now counts 44 companies in the aerospace cluster with certifications and listed as registered suppliers for major contractors. In March, the trade association landed a $50,000 grant to study the potential of a medical device manufacturers division, its second cluster.
"We have to fight an uphill battle to get recognized as an aerospace supplier," Grich says, despite the presence of a huge player such as Pratt and Whitney.
Jim Kozubek, a writer based in Portsmouth, N.H., can be reached at email@example.com.