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New summer academy launches in Maine to motivate high schoolers to join construction trades

A group of students huddle around a large iron pipe sitting on the ground at the campus of the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. They're learning to install an end cap, through their lessons with the Maine Construction Academy.
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
A group of students huddle around a large iron pipe sitting on the ground at the campus of the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. They're learning to install an end cap, through their lessons with the Maine Construction Academy.

The dirt field behind the parking lot at Biddeford Regional Center of Technology is buzzing on this morning in late May. Two students in hard hats and bright yellow construction vests face off against each other, each manning the controls of a small excavator. They're playing a slow and careful game of Tic-Tac-Toe, using the excavator's buckets to lift and place large metal Xs and Os over a grid on the ground.

"It's a little nerve-wracking, obviously with everybody watching," said Xavier Tucci, 18.

He's one of the first dozen students enrolled in the Maine Construction Academy, who tried his hand at the excavator skills game earlier in the day.

"It's smooth to run, but it's very complicated," Tucci said. "You've got like eight different ways to move the joysticks, and everything... it's just, it's all moving at once."

Associated General Contractors of Maine has partnered with Biddeford, and three other regional technical centers and high schools, to host six-week instructional courses around the state this summer. On this day, the demonstrations are being led by RJ Grondin and Sons, one of the contractors that hopes to eventually hire the students.

"We desperately need folks to choose this career path," said Kevin Murphy, director of safety and human resources at RJ Grondin. "We're not too concerned necessarily with which company they go with, but just getting exposed to it would give them some ideas of which direction they could go, the careers they could have."

Murphy said Grondin has enough work lined up to add 20 more people to its staff, if it could find the labor.

And that's a common story in the construction industry.

"It's obvious that there's a significant shortage, and there's a number of factors that are contributing to that," said Kelly Flagg, executive director of the Maine AGC. "One is actually an increase in the amount of construction that's being done right now. And one is the retiring of some of our older workforce. Our construction workforce is aging, and we've known that for quite a long time."

Federal data show a national vacancy rate of about 4.5% in construction trades, more than double the rate from a decade ago. Assuming Maine has a similar rate, the state's labor department said Maine could have as many as 1,500 construction vacancies. Studies are underway to understand Maine's specific construction workforce needs.

Flagg said part of the pitch being made to the students includes a review of the kind of pay and benefits they'll receive on the job. They'll also learn that some construction companies in Maine are employee-owned.

"That's one of the things that the kids are finding attractive that they didn't really know exist," Flagg said. "They know there's jobs. They know they're good paying jobs. They know they could get a job tomorrow. But it's not just the paycheck; it's all of the other benefits that come along with that."

 Two students in hard hats and bright yellow construction vests ARE FACED OFF AGAINST each other, EACH manning the controls of A SMALL excavator. They're playing a slow and careful game of tic-tac-toe, using the excavator's BUCKETS to lift AND PLACE large metal Xs and Os over a grid on the ground.
Nicole Ogrysko
/
Maine Public
Two high school face each other, manning the controls of a small excavator. They're playing a game of tic-tac-toe, using the excavator's buckets to lift and place large metal Xs and Os over a grid on the ground.

Many of the contractors will pay to send young recruits to school for an associate's degree or more training. And, according to Maine labor data, average hourly pay in the industry is more than $33.

Those are all big incentives for Xavier Tucci, who said he hopes to land a job with one of the contractors after graduating from high school. But they aren't the only motivating factors.

"[I] definitely like the rough carpentry, a lot of framing and stuff like that," he said. "I like working hands on with stuff like that and watching things go up. And that thing where you can watch the building physically go up... it's great, I love it."

Several feet from the excavators, Tucci and a handful of other students huddle around a large iron pipe sitting on the ground. They're learning to install an end cap. 

About 60 students from Biddeford, Brewer, Bath and Westbrook are expected to participate in the construction academy this summer. They're paid $200 a week and have been outfitted with hard hats, steel-toed boots and — in come cases — help with transportation. At the end of a six-week course, participants will have an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) 10 certificate, as well as several licenses in basic construction and the use of hand and power tools, credentials that Kevin Murphy of Grondin hopes will move them toward a paid apprenticeship.

"If we could spark one at every school we go to, that would be plenty for us," he said.

They may be off to a promising start. Murphy said Grondin has hired one of the Biddeford students. And Associated General Contractors of Maine said at least two other students from the group have landed jobs with other companies.