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August 5, 2013

Maine Quality Centers broadens its business training mission

PHOTo / Amber Waterman
PHOTo / Amber Waterman
Even with 20 years of experience, Sherry Lavoie, manager of Moody’s Collision Center in Lewiston, credits Maine Quality Centers’ training with expanding her management skills and helping her mentor co-workers.

Maine Quality Centers connections

Each campus in the Maine Community College System has a Maine Quality Centers liaison. Here they are:

Central Maine Community College, Auburn Serving businesses located in Androscoggin, Oxford, Franklin and Lincoln counties

Diane Dostie, dean of Corporate and Community Services

755-5281; www.cmcc.edu/training/

Eastern Maine Community College, Bangor Serving businesses located in Penobscot, Piscataquis, Waldo and Hancock counties

Tim Conroy, dean of Information Technology 974-4682; www.emcc.edu/business-industry-2/

Tom Giles, director Welding Test Center 974-4662; www.emcc.edu/discover-emcc/administrative-departments/business-industry/customized-training-programs/welding-test-center/

Kennebec Valley Community College, Fairfield Serving businesses in Kennebec, Knox, and Somerset counties

Bruce Davis, associate dean of Continuing Education

453-5116; www.kvcc.me.edu (click on professional development)

Northern Maine Community College, Presque Isle Serving businesses located in Aroostook County

Leah Buck, assistant dean of Continuing Education

768-2768; www.nmcc.edu/pages/nmcc/continuing-education.php

Southern Maine Community College, South Portland Serving businesses located Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties

Julie Chase, dean of Partnerships and Communications

741-5874; smccme.edu/ business-community/main/

Washington County Community College, Calais

Scott D. Harriman, associate dean of Community Education and Student Affairs

454-1012; www.wccc.me.edu

York County Community College, Wells Serving businesses located in York County

Paulette Millette, director of Community Education & Career Training

216-4342; www.yccc.edu/cect

Scott Colton realized the recent arrival of compressed natural gas in northern Maine presented plenty of opportunities for his employer, K-Pel Industries, a Fort Fairfield-based welding, fabrication and machine shop. But none of the 20 workers in the 14-year-old company had the proper training and certification needed to work on CNG systems.

"I found different organizations down state that would come up and teach us what we needed to know to pass the test for licensing, but it was expensive — about $6,000 per employee — and it would have taken three weeks of 40-hour-a-week sessions," he says. "We needed multiple people licensed, but couldn't afford to take those employees out of the work force for three weeks, never mind the training costs."

Colton, who is the quality control and project manager for K-Pel, found a better solution by connecting with Northern Maine Community College and its Maine Quality Center, a statewide business-assistance program that delivers free training to Maine businesses that pledge to create new jobs with decent wages.

He and four other K-Pel employees took evening classes in CNG training twice a week for six months, eventually earning their state licenses. Those credentials allowed K-Pel to complete CNG conversion projects for McCain Foods, The Aroostook Medical Center and a potato company in Mars Hill that brought in an estimated $400,000 in revenue over the past year.

"I feel fortunate that we were able to get that training and broaden the scope and type of work we can do," says Colton. "It has allowed us as a company to diversify and go after more markets."

Broadening services

The way K-Pel and NMCC worked together in the Maine Quality Centers program represents a broadening focus of the nearly 20-year-old program, says James McGowan, executive director of the Center for Career Development under which MQC falls in the Maine Community College System. Formed by statute in 1994, MQC was charged with creating jobs, preparing work forces and developing partnerships between business and the community colleges. To qualify for grant money to pay for customized training, a company had to promise to create at least eight jobs with benefits and pay wages that were at or above the median for that industry.

MQC initially focused on providing free training to some of Maine's largest companies to help them grow in Maine and hone a competitive advantage. Some of the first users were National Semiconductor and Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

But now, says McGowan, there's been a shift in thinking throughout the community college system that there needs to be a greater focus on providing training resources to smaller companies and welcoming incumbent workers into the program, not just new hires.

"MQC in the past has worked with new and expanding businesses by dealing with their growth and looking at net new employment," he says. "But given the slow recovery from the recession, we are looking at broadening our mandate to allow us to work with incumbent workers as a supplement to our program."

McGowan says MCCS President John Fitzsimmons got the OK to broaden the MQC mission during the last legislative session. The program is now recruiting companies for a two-year pilot that will focus on training incumbent workers only.

"We're looking at serving companies with training that best serves the individual worker to be more competitive — such as certification programs, or changing technology needs for a company — we're trying not to define it too tightly," he says.

Another component of the pilot program is adoption of a sliding scale. Under the original MQC program, any business that met the eligibility standards received the training at no cost — the training was paid by grant money. But under the pilot, eligible companies with over 100 employees pay 50% of the training costs; companies with between 50 and 100 employees pay 25%; and companies with 50 or fewer employees get free training.

Fees collected for the training under the pilot program will be returned to the business and industry department of the community college system to replenish MQC operations. When the program was launched in 1994, it had a budget of $2 million; its last legislative appropriation was $872,000.

McGowan says the funding has ebbed and flowed since he arrived at MQC's helm in 2000, but given the state's renewed emphasis on job creation and the need to fill a skills gap, there's revived interest in the program. Since its founding, MQC has worked with 228 businesses in training programs that created 12,787 jobs.

In MQC's last report to the Legislature in October of 2012, eight companies used the program from July 2011 through June 2012, at a total cost of $117,469. Of the 219 people who received training, 120 were hired by the participating companies. The training helped secure the $35.8 million the companies invested in their Maine operations. Since 1994, MQC connects the value of its training to more than $2.1 billion in related private investment in Maine.

Multiple rounds of training

In Gorham, Moody's Collision Centers has tapped Southern Maine Community College for training since 2005 and that relationship has been essential to the auto body repair company's growth, says founder Shawn Moody. He says, like a lot of entrepreneurs, he understood the technical side of his business, but didn't have a lot of formal training around business operations. But he knew once he considered opening additional collision centers, he needed people who could lead the company as well as repair bent fenders.

"We tapped MQC for what I call soft skills — a lot of communication skills and management training," he says, rattling off topics such as soliciting customer feedback, conducting efficient meetings and communicating effectively within a multi-generational staff.

"Because of that training, we are more effective as an organization, and that impact has been magnified every time we open a new location," he says, noting the ninth center is expected to open this fall in Augusta. He says the company has grown 18% annually and employs more than 100 people.

For Sherry Lavoie, who manages the collision center in Lewiston, that training has been crucial. She had 20 years of experience in auto body shops, in Lee and Emerson dealerships, before coming to Moody's, and credits the MQC training with giving her new skills to manage her shop and help her develop co-workers.

She cites a recent example when the multi-generation communication training came into play: A technician who didn't show up for work one morning thought he had covered the bases by sending Lavoie a text message about why had to be out that day. Lavoie, who prefers that her co-workers not use their cell phones during work hours, didn't see the text until mid-day.

"It's all fine, but we had a little talk," says Lavoie. "I told him that I understand texting is easy for you, but that's the kind of information that's best to have a conversation about."

Lavoie says what could have been a confrontational or hostile conversation was in fact easy because of training she and other Moody's employees received through MQC.

"It makes a big difference in the culture here," she says.

Julie Chase, interim dean of business and industry partnerships at SMCC, says Moody's has been smart about using the MQC program.

"They are really looking to have consistency with how they manage the performance and training of their work force," she says.

With Moody's initial training in 2005, 35 of the company's 52 employees qualified for free training, with MQC grants totaling $17,600 resulting in seven new hires. The others were offered the same training for a negotiated fee. That year, training focused on communication skills.

In the second round of training, in 2009, 71 employees — including eight new hires — tapped $14,500 in grant funding for a curriculum that focused on understanding personality types and matching innate skills with job requirements.

Now at the tail end of Moody's third training, 18 new hires and 50 or so incumbent workers are getting up to speed on the communication and management skills of the previous two classes, and completing some technical skill certification classes. This class received a $15,500 grant.

"Shawn is a proponent of continuing education and supporting employees as well," says Chase. "He makes sure all employees have the same opportunities, and he has more than doubled his employment over the years [with us.] These are full-time jobs with good benefits."

Preparing for more

Colton of K-Pel says his company has hired three new employees since the CNG work has taken off — part of what qualified K-Pel for $25,000 in MQC grants. He wanted to hire three more people, but concedes it's hard to find prospective employees with basic welding and fabrication skills in northern Maine. So he's talking to Leah Buck, the assistant dean of continuing education at NMCC and the overseer of the MQC program there, about offering a new round of training.

"I'm pushing her to do a similar program with pipefitting," says Colton. "Even if it's just a one-year program, we might get some employees out of that. We just can't find people with that knowledge out there."

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