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Updated: June 13, 2024

Defense force: New coalition looks to build talent pool for Maine's military businesses

Photo / courtesy, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works Members of the newly formed Maine Defense Industry Alliance

Maine’s defense industry anticipates the need for thousands of new hires over the next five years.

Where will those workers come from? And how will Maine provide the needed skills training for thousands of existing defense workers to advance in their careers?

Those are the key questions before a newly formed partnership dedicated to attracting and training thousands of new and existing employees for critical jobs in the state’s defense industry.

Known as the Maine Defense Industry Alliance, the partnership consists of Maine defense companies, community colleges and universities, state agencies and the U.S. Navy. The alliance’s formation was announced March 1.

The partners say the alliance will serve a critical need in Maine, where the defense sector employs more than 20,000 people at over 150 companies. Defense spending in Maine totaled $3.2 billion in 2021.

With support from the U.S. Department of Defense, the nonprofit alliance plans to guide and support training initiatives across the state by building a comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable workforce development system, its leaders say.

The alliance’s educational partners include the Maine Community College System, the University of Maine System, Maine Maritime Academy and the Roux Institute of Northeastern University.

“This is really a tremendous opportunity if we get it right,” says David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System. “But if we don’t treat this as a matter of urgency … we’re going to lose opportunity to other states in other regions of the country.”

Maine’s largest defense contractors – shipbuilder General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, and the Navy-run Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – all need new, highly skilled employees, according to leaders of the alliance.

By 2029, Maine’s defense industry must add 8,000 skilled workers, the leaders say, and another 10,000 workers already employed by the industry will need additional training and education to advance their skills.

“I don’t think you can [overstate] the urgency,” says Daigler, inaugural co-chair of the alliance’s board of directors. “This is actually yesterday’s problem being solved today, not tomorrow’s problem that we’re trying to figure out.”

Photo / courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works
BIW employee Arianna Bedolla describes her journey to a career at BIW via a Marine Design training program offered in partnership with the Maine’sCommunity College System.

Tangible impact

Over the next five years, Maine defense contractors and the subcontractors who support them must significantly ramp up hiring, adding between 1,200 and 1,700 skilled workers each year.

When including replacements needed to cover retirements and natural turnover, Bath Iron Works, Pratt & Whitney and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard alone anticipate needing to fill over 7,500 positions, according to the alliance. Hundreds of additional workers will be needed by smaller defense industry suppliers across the state, it says.

“Our mission to build ships for the U.S. Navy in support of our country’s national defense depends on having a highly skilled, well-trained workforce,” BIW President Charles Krugh said in a statement. “This new partnership linking Maine’s major defense contractors and our state’s education infrastructure creates a cohesive and sustainable approach to meeting this critical demand.”

The alliance will focus on recruiting more people into the defense industry, delivering a wide array of training opportunities for those seeking employment in the industry, and upgrading the skills of the industry’s incumbent workforce, its leaders say.

The collaboration has received initial funding of $5 million from the Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base program to launch the Maine alliance and expand manufacturing and trade programs at York County Community College in Wells and Sanford.

In tandem with the alliance’s launch, YCCC announced a $6.5 million plan to create a new welding lab. It’s the first tangible impact of the new initiative to increase the number of people working in Maine’s defense industry.

The college will build a 10,000-square-foot addition to its existing Sanford Instructional Site facility at 60 Community Drive, in Sanford, to create the YCCC Center for Excellence in Manufacturing and Trades.

The facility is within 30 miles of both Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, and Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick, both founding members of the alliance.

The expansion will be funded by $3.5 million in Navy funding, $1.5 million in YCCC funds, and $1.5 million in federal funding through 2023’s federal Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill.

“It’s a great investment to build a new state-of-the-art welding facility just miles from two of the state’s three largest defense contractors, adding hundreds of new skilled workers a year to the local workforce,” YCCC President Michael Fischer said in a news release.

Photo / courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works
BIW employee Thomas Bailey

Officials weigh in

Maine’s top elected officials praised the alliance for its coordinated, all-hands-on-deck approach to alleviating the workforce and skills shortages in the state’s defense industry.

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said Maine has a “long, storied, and proud history” of supporting national defense, and that the alliance would help keep that history alive.

“By marshalling the resources of state government, higher education institutions, and leading defense companies, this public and private partnership will build a pipeline of skilled workers to fill good-paying jobs in Maine’s defense sector and fulfill our mission of supporting the defense of our nation,” Mills said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the new partnership between Maine educational institutions and the state’s defense employers, who rely on a highly skilled workforce, is “exciting and vital to both the state’s economy and our national defense.”

“Providing Mainers with paths to meaningful, well-paying jobs through investments in skills training will keep more young people in the state and provide valuable resources throughout their careers,” Collins said.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, praised the alliance for its innovative approach. According to the group, no similar entity exists in any other state, thus creating an opportunity for the alliance to become a model for others.

“This alliance is an investment in bridging the gap between public and private sectors that can impact businesses and colleges from Aroostook to York counties and will boost our state’s economy and defense workforce, as well as our national security,” King said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said that with Maine’s workforce aging faster than nearly any other state, it’s critical for it to keep meeting residents’ economic needs and offering opportunities to earn a good living.

“Our state’s robust and cutting-edge defense industry has immense potential to help address challenges like Maine’s historically low unemployment rate, our aging workforce, and the decline in the number of students graduating high school,” Pingree said in a statement. “This new partnership taps into our potential–creating more opportunities for Mainers to learn skilled trades in service of our state and our nation.”

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