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Maine Community College System announces a $60M workforce training program to address stark economic trends

Virus Outbreak
Robert F. Bukaty
An ice cream shop advertises for help Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Bar Harbor, Maine. America’s tourist destinations are facing a severe worker shortage just as they try to rebound from a devastating year lost to the pandemic.

The Maine Community College System is launching a new, $60 million effort to create an online job training platform, with a goal of educating more than 24,000 workers over the next four years. Businesses are hoping that the initiative will make a significant dent in a shortage of labor that's left hundreds of jobs vacant at some companies.

At an event on Tuesday, government and workforce officials pointed to one major trend in the state labor market: thousands of workers are still struggling to find jobs while businesses continue to report few, if any, applicants for their openings.

To help bridge that gap, officials announced a new $60 million initiative from the Maine Community College System to create a statewide virtual job training platform.

System President David Daigler says it will offer three kinds of training opportunities: short-term programs to get people into the workforce, ongoing training for current workers, and college classes to help Mainers who've started — but never finished — a college degree.

"We now have a vehicle to work with our business partners. And we can build pathways for Maine people to earn credentials, and those are the credentials they need to move ahead," Daigler said.

As one example, Daigler said that a worker could use the new online training to become a certified nursing assistant, then continue with additional instruction to eventually advance to a medical assistant.

The new $60 million initiative will be primarily funded with $35 million in federal money allocated by the state, plus a $15.5 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation. Daigler says by training 24,000 workers over the next four years in fields such as education, healthcare, and manufacturing, businesses can emerge from the pandemic and keep up with a changing labor market.

"Maine needs to help businesses improve their productivity," Daigler said. "We need to help businesses keep pace with the current economy, and a business climate that's changing at breakneck speed."

And those businesses say the assistance is needed as they struggle to find help.

"In 2021 alone, we've hired 1,700 people," said Jon Mason, the vice president of human resources at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works. "And believe it or not, we're still struggling to find enough people to fill all of our job openings."

Mason said BIW has already worked with the community college system to quickly find and train some of its new workers. But the company will still likely need to fill some 1,500 additional jobs by the end of next year.

"We have literally gotten hundreds of qualified job applicants out of these pipeline programs already. And what this investment will enable is the ability to scale out these programs, that we're already demonstrating are working. To the benefit of both BIW and a lot of other Maine businesses, large and small," Mason said.

Labor advocates are mostly encouraged by the effort, too. Maine AFL-CIO spokesperson Andy O'Brien said that he's glad to see that the new training will focus on sectors including education, manufacturing and healthcare, but he also wants to be sure that workers are being trained for quality jobs with living wages and benefits.

"The training is important. But It needs to be coupled with strong labor standards," O'Brien said.

Both business and labor advocates say that training is only one piece of the puzzle in getting more people into jobs — and that barriers including childcare and transportation are still preventing many people from being able to return to the workforce.