MADISON — A tech center program is expanding its welding program to provide learning opportunities for students in central Maine.

Somerset Career and Technical Center, which is housed near Skowhegan Area High School with satellite locations in Madison and Pittsfield, offers several different programs to 306 students from Skowhegan Area High School, Carrabec High School in North Anson, Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Madison Area Memorial High School and Upper Kennebec Valley Jr./Sr. High School in Bingham.

Among those 306 students, 12 participate in the welding program, housed at Cianbro in Pittsfield. Another 18 remain on a waiting list to get into the program.

David Dorr, director of Somerset Career and Technical Center, said that after seeing a large number of students on the waiting list, he wanted to find ways to make new opportunities.

“Every year we have a waiting list, and this year we had a waiting list of about 14 or 18 kids. I called and tried to figure out a way to make that work at Cianbro, and we couldn’t figure it out,” Dorr said.

Then he reached out to the schools that sent their students to SCTC, and Madison Area Memorial High School offered a space that was previously used as a metal shop. An engineering study showed that it would cost $330,000 to make the space usable for a welding program.

The tech center was awarded a grant to cover a great portion of the costs. Dorr, alongside Madison High School principal Christopher LeBlanc; Tracie Travers, director of workforce development for Jobs for Maine Graduates, and other stakeholders continue to raise funds to complete the project.

“We got a grant from the state so we’re buying all new welders, replacing the ventilation stations and the booths,” Dorr said. “(LeBlanc) is taking care of facilities, which includes upgrading the transformers, building the walls and those kind of things.”

The goal, he said, is to have new students start the program in Madison in September.

Isaac Ouellette, 15, a sophomore at Madison Memorial High School, welds Thursday in the current Somerset Career and Tech Center wing at Madison Memorial High School. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“There is a lot of buzz, and people are stepping up and offering to donate materials and time to make this happen,” he said. 

A recent comprehensive local needs assessment showed 95% of students who participate in career and technical education programs, such as SCTC, graduate.

Other statistics show that students who are not economically disadvantaged graduate at a rate of 95% statewide, Dorr said, while those who are disadvantaged graduate at a rate of about 77%.

“That’s why we think it’s so important to create all the opportunities for all kids, so that we can help everybody to be successful,” Dorr said. “That’s why I reached out to JMG, because they have the same success rate that we do. We have programs that kids can be successful at, and that all kids — 95% — can graduate.”

Relationships developed between staff and students in both SCTC and JMG programs lead students to programs where they can earn credentials or a degree, Travers said, and “that helps them earn a livable wage at the very least.

“A career in the trades can propel a student who is economically disadvantaged to be able to move out of living in poverty and have a much better, more secure life.”

Having a welding program that is accessible to students in SCTC, adult education and other businesses also opens up opportunities for economic development within the community.

“With (SCTC) and Madison High School offering an opportunity for their community to be able to attend adult education courses at night or for businesses to uptrain their employees to be able to be welders or earn more certificates, that’s also going to help the adult learners gain higher wages and earn the credential that can change the trajectory of their life when they have more resources available to them,” Travers said. “It’s a tremendous impact that can’t go unnoticed.”

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