Bath Iron Works added a weekly stipend to free SMCC welding and manufacturing courses in an effort to grow to its workforce. Students who successfully complete one or both of the courses are guaranteed an interview at the shipyard. Kathleen O’Brien/The Times Record

BATH — One year after Southern Maine Community College opened enrollment for free entry-level manufacturing courses in partnership with Bath Iron Works, the shipyard kicked in a $500 weekly stipend for participating students, in hopes of boosting the shipyard’s hiring push. 

The stipend comes as the shipyard is looking to replace skilled workers who are retiring, and help fulfill a Navy contract to build 11 Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the next eight years. 

According to Jon Mason, director of human resources for BIW, the shipyard has hired just over 100 new employees through the program. 

“The only way we can go faster is to hire more workers,” said Mason. 

BIW took on just over 1,000 new workers in 2019 and plans to match that number in 2020, then add another 600 to 800 workers in 2021, growing its workforce of nearly 6,000, according to Mason. 

Mason said the size of the shipyard’s workforce directly impacts its ability to deliver products to the Navy on time. 

“We’re not building toasters. What we’re building plays a critical role in the national security of the U.S.,” said Mason. “We build a product that the Navy uses to protect the U.S. They’re sailing it directly into harm’s way trusting we built it and built it right.” 

The 3-week courses, which were designed in partnership with BIW, teach students basic trade skills useful to the shipyard, such as welding. If students successfully complete one or both of the courses, they are guaranteed an interview at BIW but are not guaranteed a job. 

Companies statewide are feeling the effect of the sparse workforce, which in part was caused by changing demographics within Maine’s labor force, according to Commissioner Laura Fortman from the Maine Department of Labor. 

Fortman said the majority of Maine’s labor market falls as Baby Boomers retire or decrease their hours, causing a sudden drop in employment. 

According to a survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was an average of 30,750 job openings in Maine from June 2018 to June 2019. That number was unchanged from the same period a year earlier, and up 3,000 from two years earlier. 

Sagadahoc County’s unemployment rate is 1.8 percent, the lowest in the state, followed by Cumberland County’s 1.9 percent. In September 2014, Sagadahoc County had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, according to the Maine Department of Labor. 

While the leaner labor pool is a challenge for employers looking to hire, Fortman said it’s a good thing for the average Mainer. 

“Employers are much more willing to engage people who are not necessarily perfect candidates for a job and employers are willing to help train new employees and recognize transferable skills,” said Fortman. “Pools of untapped workers that have been left on the side like veterans, people with disabilities, and people who were previously incarcerated are seeing more opportunities.” 

Fortman said employers are willing to go the extra mile to draw in new employees, like raising wages and benefits. 

Within BIW, the shipyard recently instituted a relocation bonus of $3,500 and began an employee referral program, which offers a cash bonus for employees who refer people who get hired and stay with the shipyard for a certain period of time. 

In addition to offering paid training courses at SMCC, BIW also operates an internal training academy at Brunswick Landing for new hires. 

Mason said BIW is willing to hire someone with little to no experience as long as they’re willing to work. 

While the paid welding and manufacturing technician courses at SMCC were designed in partnership with BIW, the courses give students skills applicable to many of Maine’s trades, meaning they’re intended to grow Maine’s labor force as a whole, according to Jim Whitten, SMCC’s dean of workforce development and dean of the Midcoast campus. 

“To learn a skill you can take anywhere, that’s creating economic development at the grassroots level,” said Whitten. 

Rather than teaching students how to build military vessels, “The skills we’re building are those basic manufacturing skills,” according to Mason.

The courses run for eight hours per day for three weeks and take place at SMCC’s campus in Brunswick Landing. SMCC is able to offer free on-campus housing for those who need it through a grant from the Maine Quality Centers. 

The Maine Quality Centers are part of the Maine Community College System and provide customized workforce grants to Maine employers, with training delivered through SMCC and Maine’s other community colleges. 

“We have to attract people to stay and work here,” said Whitten. 


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