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Workers say they don't have training for all the open jobs — so businesses are starting to offer it

Shantel Ahearn, a student in Bath Iron Work's Training Program t
Molly Haley
for The Hechinger Report
At 21, Shantel Ahearn has already worked for her mother’s shellfish company, a paving contractor and a McDonald’s near the Bath Iron Works shipyard. Uncertain how she would go about getting a better job, she learned about a training program in welding and other skills from some of the workers who came in for burgers when their shifts were over.

In Maine and across the country, there are lots of jobs going unfilled. Many people are still out of the labor force — and even more are quitting every day.

While the complications of the pandemic continue to play a role, workers say one of the biggest barriers is that open jobs don't match their skillsets. Now, some businesses are working to train applicants in-house in hopes of filling open positions.

Inside a cavernous industrial building on the site of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, 21-year-old Shantel Ahearn is intensely focused as she fuses together two pieces of metal amidst a shower of sparks.

Ahearn has never welded before. But after the pandemic left her in a precarious financial position, she's hoping this three-week training through Bath Iron Works could lead to a more stable career.

"My family's always been just, living life, being able to pay their bills and not having a lot extra," Ahearn said. "I think here, I'll be able to be financially stable. Rather than how my family's been their whole life."

Shantel Ahearn, a student in Bath Iron Work's Training Program t
Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report
for The Hechinger Report
Shantel Ahearn

Ahearn lost her job at a plowing company in the midst of the pandemic. She found some work at a local McDonald's. But as she searched for something more permanent, Ahearn found herself in the same boat with many other workers: looking for new opportunities, but finding few that matched her skills.

According to a recent survey from the Maine Department of Labor, more than a third of unemployed workers pointed to that skills mismatch as one of the top barriers keeping them from returning to the workforce.

"So the whole system now is a longer walk," said Tony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "And it's tougher. It requires more education and training, and more work experience of high quality. And that's not available."

Carnevale said he's largely encouraged by the current labor market, with more workers leaving lower-paid jobs in retail and hospitality for higher wages and benefits elsewhere. But for decades, he said, the U.S. hasn't invested enough in proper job training — and many workers don't have the needed skills for open positions.

"Back in the Nixon era, in the 1970s, it didn't matter. 70% of the good jobs only required high school, including in Maine," Carnevale said. "But that's flipped. It's now 70% of the good jobs require at least some education and training at the post-secondary level."

In the face of that new reality, some businesses are training new recruits themselves.

For Bath Iron Works, the process began about three years ago. The company's vice president of human resources, Jon Mason, said at that time, BIW was engaged in a still-ongoing hiring spree of more than 10,000 workers — part of an effort to replace retirees and catch up on a backlog of work.

"So that's driven us to really staff up recently at a level that we haven't done in over 30 years," Mason said.

Mason said the company used to see many applicants who had worked at paper mills. But with the decline of that industry, fewer job seekers now have any manufacturing experience. BIW decided to join forces with the community college system to develop a short program — only three weeks — in which recruits can learn the basics, from reading a tape measure to welding. There's no cost to the trainees. In fact, they receive a $500 weekly stipend and a job interview at the end.

"So literally, if somebody was really motivated, they could step into a course, and within three weeks have enough skills to be able to get hired into BIW, and then get on-the-job training from there and work up through the trades within our organization," Mason said.

So far, Mason said, the program has brought in hundreds of new workers. And the state is hoping it can be replicated. Earlier this month, the community college system announced an effort to train 24,000 workers over the next four years — many in similar kinds of short-term opportunities.

Matt Schlobohm, the head of the Maine AFL-CIO, said he's mostly encouraged by training efforts — particularly if they're leading to well-paying jobs. But he says the state needs to tackle other barriers to work, including affordable childcare and housing.

"I think everything is pointed in the right direction," he said. "We need to really make sure that we're doing everything to attach standards and make sure that training dollars result in good jobs. And I think there will still be a lot more to do."

Back at the training center in Brunswick, 21-year-old Ahearn is hoping that a new job will allow her to finally catch up on outstanding bills and feel less anxious when she looks at her bank account.

"For example, if I wanted to go to McDonald's and get something to eat, I don't have to worry what's in my bank account," she said. "You know, at the end of the day, I'll have a steady amount and be able to afford things."

Ahearn hopes the job will also offer some stability for years to come — so she won't end up without a job again.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.