PITTSFIELD — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta focused on workforce development in Maine and throughout the country while touring job-training sites in Bangor and at Cianbro.

The two officials, who toured Penobscot Job Corps Center in Bangor earlier in the day, were given tours of three facilities at Cianbro: the Cianbro Institute, a training and education center exclusively for Cianbro workers to improve their skills and develop new ones; the company’s welding facility; and the simulation yard.

In between stops at Cianbro, Collins said she and Acosta have been working together in Washington, D.C., on issues surrounding workplace safety and workforce development. While in Bangor, she said they saw welding programs, culinary programs, medical assisting programs, all of which are “making a real difference in making sure that Mainers have the skills they need to get good jobs and to stay in Maine.”

Collins said she was impressed touring the classrooms of the Cianbro Institute, where she met people who were both on their very first day of training, as well as a person employed at Cianbro for more than 20 years who was learning new skills.

“That’s the kind of lifelong improvement in skills that our state needs to be competitive, and Cianbro rightly can be proud not only of its extraordinary safety record but also of the fact that so many employees have come through here in the last year,” Collins said.

Acosta, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, said his visit had been helpful in learning about the issues facing Maine. He said Maine has a 2.7 unemployment rate, “which is fabulous on one level, but at another level Maine needs workers and we hear that from so many businesses.”

Acosta said he learned at the Penobscot Job Corps that 80 percent of graduates there find employment right away. He said he was also impressed with Cianbro being so focused on safety rules for its employees.

Before moving on to tour the welding area at Cianbro, Acosta said the federal government has a role to play in doing more with workforce training. The federal government does provide a lot of money for workforce training, he said, and the partnership between community colleges and industry is strong, particularly with the colleges going to businesses to see what skills are most needed in the workforce. He said colleges that focus on doing that often have a competitive advantage when seeking grants.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta, right, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins listen to a Cianbro employee at the Cianbro Institute in Pittsfield on Tuesday. Staff photo by Colin Ellis

It is the government’s belief, Acosta said, that states know how to individually focus on their own workforce issues in using federal funding.

Collins said there has been talk of using Pell grants in more innovative ways towards earning certification. For example, if a person wants to become a plumber but doesn’t want to go through a full two-year program, it might encourage community colleges to offer certification programs.

“The idea deserves attention and consideration,” she said.

When asked what more can be done by the federal government to help keep younger workers in Maine, Collins said apprenticeship programs between community colleges and local businesses, like Cianbro, can give workers the skills they need and thereby can help retain them.

“That is particularity important in a state like ours where we have witnessed in the past decade the closure of so many paper mills,” Collins said. “And those mills once provided lifelong, good employment for workers. And now so many of them are gone.”

Collins did say she was happy to hear Cianbro had hired former employees of a closed mill and gave them the skills they needed to survive in today’s economy.

“And we face special challenges in this state because our workforce is growing older,” she said. “We’re the oldest state in the nation by median age. So we need to make sure we encourage our young people to stay in Maine and show them the opportunities that are here and get them the education and training that will allow them to build good lives here in Maine.”

Acosta said more companies in the United States are offering on-site training. Given the low unemployment rate, he said companies are having to compete for workers.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta speak with reporters Tuesday during a tour of the Cianbro company in Pittsfield. Staff photo by David Leaming

The two were asked how raising the minimum wage would impact the economy and therefore workforce development. Collins said that as federal employees, they wouldn’t have the answers, but said she did think raising the minimum wage was “overdue” on the federal level, but didn’t see that coming up anytime soon. She did say when a worker learns more skills or achieves a higher education, their wages and salaries tend to go up regardless of what the minimum wage is.

“We’re focused on getting people those skills,” she said.

Peter Vigue, who stepped down as CEO of Cianbro earlier this year, was at the event and said the most important issue facing the state was a strong economy.

“We’ve got more than our share of challenges, particularly in the northern half of the state,” he said. “And we’re open for biz here in the state of Maine, and we’re doing our part to model for others a process that has worked successfully for us for a number of years, and encourage others to invest in the state. But not only that, but invest in the people they employ on a go-forward basis.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis