SOUTH PORTLAND — Cameron Etheridge knows a lot of well-paid jobs are waiting for him.

But that’s not the first thing the precision-machining student at the Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter mentions when asked what he likes about milling machine parts from blocks of metal.

“I like the fact that I can make whatever I want,” said Etheridge, 18, who is a junior at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford. “I can envision something and make it.”

Etheridge was among 15 high school students from across the state who participated in the SkillsUSA Maine Precision Machining Competition held Thursday at Southern Maine Community College. Working in the college’s precision machining laboratory, the students either manufactured metal machine parts by hand, using manual lathes and mills, or they wrote the programs to make parts with computer numerical control machines.

The students are aiming to fill a growing demand for skilled machinists across Maine and the United States.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that “job opportunities for these workers should be good because of … the need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation.” Average pay for machinists is $44,160 per year or $21.23 per hour nationally, and $47,340 per year or $22.76 per hour in Maine.

“Everybody’s retiring and there hasn’t been any backfill,” said Rich Barratt, a precision machining instructor at the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland. “It’s not a career you walk into and you’re good at it right away. I liken it to a sport. It takes practice and patience.”

Machinists set up, operate and maintain a variety of equipment to fabricate, modify or repair precision parts and instruments, using knowledge of mechanics, mathematics, computers, metal properties, design skills and machining procedures, the federal labor department says.

“Most people don’t even know what a machinist is, but the need for them is so strong, we’ve had companies soliciting our students to go to work for them right out of high school,” said Andy Morris, a precision machining instructor at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville.

Some companies have offered as much as $19 an hour to start, with full benefits including vacation pay, money for college tuition and five hours per week of paid study time, Morris said.

Mitch Poirier, 19, a senior in the precision machining program at SMCC, has been working for a machine tool company in Arundel for several months. He’s making $16 an hour now and sees the potential to earn $20 to $30 an hour in a career that makes the most of his natural abilities and will always be in demand.

“When my mom and dad got rid of their old stereo, they gave it to me so I could take it apart and see how it was made,” Poirier said. “Almost everything we come in contact with in our daily lives goes back to machining.”

Thursday’s competition was held in advance of the SkillsUSA Maine Championships scheduled to take place in Bangor in March, when the precision machining winners will be announced. The winner of the computer numerical control category will have the opportunity to represent Maine at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference for career and technical education in June in Louisville, Kentucky.

The national championships no longer include manual precision machining competitions because they require such large and heavy equipment, said John Bolduc, chairman of the Precision Machining and Manufacturing Department at SMCC.

Still, Bolduc said, it’s essential for students to learn how to use manual lathes and mills.

“That’s when you learn to cut metal, so you know how to program a machine to cut metal,” he said.

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