WATERVILLE — State officials met with local leaders in business and higher education Wednesday afternoon as part of a statewide jobs tour being promoted by House Speaker Mark Eves.

“If we want good jobs and strong wages, we must bring our workers and businesses together to prepare for the jobs of the future. Maine’s comeback story depends on it,” said Eves, D-North Berwick. “We need a regional approach and an industry-led effort to grow good jobs, and this will be a key priority for lawmakers over the next two years.”

The jobs tour, which so far also has included visits by lawmakers to North Berwick and Aroostook County, is part of an effort to engage workers, employers and community officials in a dialogue about creating more jobs in Maine and ensuring good wages, according to Eves. It is also part of a proposal by Eves to invest $5 million over five years to create at least 10 public-private partnerships to support job training.

On Wednesday, lawmakers visited Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Backyard Farms in Madison and Thomas College in Waterville. At Thomas, Eves highlighted two examples of the types of partnerships the state hopes to help develop as a result of the jobs tour: a precision machinist training program in York County that is already underway and plans to develop a logger training program in Aroostook County.

“We’re trying to develop how we can be helpful and invest in the need that’s immediate now as well as the future needs,” Eves said. “One thing we’ve heard over and over again is we need it now, but with a retiring workforce in many parts of the state, we will really need it.”

One local business owner, Dan Williams, of Eagle Rentals in Waterville, said it is a challenge to get young people to work in technical jobs, in part because there has been less of an emphasis on training for those jobs.

“My youngest mechanic is 45 years old,” Williams said. “Most of them are in their 50s. Money isn’t an object to our company. It’s we can’t find the people that can fix equipment. The problem is to get what we need taught for basic mechanical work.”

Meanwhile, existing college programs have been threatened by a lack of funding, said Richard Hopper, president of Kennebec Valley Community College. The college is in danger of eliminating its sonography and respiratory therapy programs, both of which were started with federal grants, he said.

“We are about to lose the possibility to churn out 25 people per year in high-demand, high-wage fields,” Hopper said. “We really need to think about ‘What are we doing well? What do we already have in place that’s in jeopardy?'”

Jessica Laliberte, an assistant coordinator at Bridge Year Educational Services, a program that helps high school students earn college credits, said the discussion points brought up by Williams, Hopper and others were important ones that could lead to collaboration between business and education groups.

“There really needs to be collaboration between schools and the business sector,” she said. “That’s why discussions like this are important. It brings business folks together with the education system to discuss where we can best work together, because we all have a stake in it.”

The discussion at Thomas concluded a day in which lawmakers toured two of the area’s major employers — Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Backyard Farms.

“Higher education plays a big role in job placement,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who said that earlier in the day he met many graduates of both Thomas and Unity College. While no formal collaborations have come out of Wednesday’s tour yet, the tour helped lawmakers get a sense of what training programs are needed at workplaces in the area, he said.

“We hear from a lot of people that young people don’t realize the opportunities that exist,” McCabe said. “We’ve also been hearing from the business community what technical training and degree programs are needed. By working together, these groups can commit to keeping more people in Maine.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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