With Maine facing a workforce shortage that is only going to get worse, employers canâ€™t afford to sit back and wait for good employees to come their way - they have to help produce them.
Many companies have already gotten the word. Roughly 115 employers are now taking part in the state Department of Laborâ€™s Apprenticeship Program, an increase of 40 percent in two years, the Portland Press Herald reported last week. Another 60 have applied and are awaiting approval.
Under the program, businesses having trouble finding qualified applicants recruit and hire apprentices, who work full time while also attending classroom sessions, often through a community college.
The state partially subsidizes training and education for the apprentices, who in return get on-the-job training and a nationally recognized certificate. They also get a foot in the door at a company that needs workers - state officials say 95 percent of apprentices end up working with the company that sponsored them.
The program in the past has been used mostly to train workers in blue-collar jobs such as construction, shipbuilding, plumbing and electrical work. But in a sign of just how widespread Maineâ€™s workforce shortage has become, more white-collar professions are using apprenticeships, including the health care and information technology sectors.
In one case, in a for-profit venture spun off the state program, apprentices make up the staff of a public relations agency, building the number of workers in that field. A similar initiative also is planned for the hospitality industry.
Some companies are already heavily invested in employee training. Cianbro Corp., for instance, has had its own training institute for over a decade.
And Bath Iron Works, which has been a participant in the state apprenticeship program, operates a training academy that has trained 700 workers since the beginning of the year; they plan to hire 1,000 more workers in 2020. Gardiner-based Everett J. Prescott Inc., which has 300 employees, has trained 50 workers through its apprenticeship program in the last 12 years.
But it is difficult for Maineâ€™s many small businesses to mimic those kinds of initiatives by themselves. Thatâ€™s where the state program comes in - officials say an apprenticeship program can be set up through the state for nearly any profession.
But the state program is so popular that the maximum reimbursement to employers has been cut by more than half; it needs more funding, as do training programs in general. (Gov. Mills originally proposed a $19 million workforce development bond be put before Maine voters; a pared-down version to fund career and technical centers was rejected - at least for the time being - by Republicans last week.)
Apprenticeships and other training programs arenâ€™t the only answer to Maineâ€™s workforce problems. For employers struggling to find workers amid strict competition, increasing wages must be on the table.
And Maine absolutely has to attract more working-age people. If not, there simply wonâ€™t be enough workers to fill open positions, even if every native-born Mainer stays here to work.
But when employers commit to training their own workers, it can pull new people into the workforce, and it can allow others to move up to better-paying jobs.
It can reshape Maineâ€™s workforce, little by little, for the better.