Alliance to help Maine defense contractors that are struggling to fill jobs

FILE - The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is seen, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Kittery, Maine. Americans lament the lack of good-paying manufacturing jobs, but defense contractors are having trouble filling the ones that still exist in Maine. Defense contractors, community colleges and universities, the U.S. Navy and others announced an alliance Friday, March 1, 2024 to accelerate workforce training to help prepare thousands of workers for defense jobs like those at Pratt & Whitney,...

FILE - The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is seen, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Kittery, Maine. Americans lament the lack of good-paying manufacturing jobs, but defense contractors are having trouble filling the ones that still exist in Maine. Defense contractors, community colleges and universities, the U.S. Navy and others announced an alliance Friday, March 1, 2024 to accelerate workforce training to help prepare thousands of workers for defense jobs like those at Pratt & Whitney,... Robert F. Bukaty

By DAVID SHARP

Associated Press

Published: 03-01-2024 5:00 PM

SANFORD, Maine — While Americans lament the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs, defense contractors are struggling to fill skilled positions that still exist in Maine and are key to the nation’s defense.

Defense contractors, community colleges and universities and the U.S. Navy announced an alliance Friday to accelerate workforce training to help prepare thousands of workers for jobs at shipbuilder Bath Iron Works, which builds warships; government-owned Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which overhauls nuclear submarines; and Pratt & Whitney, which makes jet engines for the F-35 fighter.

Charles Krugh, president of Bath Iron Works, said a highly skilled workforce is critical to the shipyard’s mission, and the Maine Defense Industry Alliance “creates a cohesive and sustainable approach to meeting this critical demand.”

The push comes as U.S. defense contractors work to replace munitions shipped to Ukraine to help in its fight against Russian invaders and to keep pace with China’s navy, which has surpassed the U.S. fleet in size. At the same time, North Korea is developing long-range missiles and Israel’s war on Hamas serves as a flashpoint in the Middle East, as well.

Navy and defense officials, the governor and members of Maine’s congressional delegation were on hand Friday for the launch of the alliance, which is being jumpstarted with a $5 million donation from the Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base program to expand programs and build a state-of-the-art welding lab at York County Community College.

The Maine Defense Industry Alliance mirrors efforts in other parts of the country to help workers get skills needed for defense production jobs. But the problem is especially acute in Maine.

The number of high school graduates in Maine has declined from 18,000 a decade ago to today’s level of about 11,500, and workers are retiring in large numbers in the state with the nation’s oldest population. The pandemic didn’t help, either, contributing to job vacancies as the state’s unemployment has dipped to the lowest level in 50 years.

But the alliance believes there are workers out there, including some who left the workforce altogether, immigrants who’ve been arriving in recent years and others who are looking for a career change.

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Bath Iron Works anticipates needing to hire 3,500 employees by 2026, has discovered it as a higher retention rate of workers who’ve gone through a training program. Pratt & Whitney anticipates hiring 1,400 workers and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard also anticipates hiring approximately 2,700 employees, both over the next five years.

All told, the defense sector currently employs more than 20,000 people at over 150 companies in Maine, the alliance.

The goal of the alliance is to build a feeder system to attract young workers, the unemployed and the under-employed for jobs in the defense industry and expand training and evolve to invest in training for new skills.

The jobs tend to pay well. An entry level tradesperson at Bath Iron Works gets $50,000, which is about $10,000 higher than the overall average wage in Maine, according to the U.S. census.