By John Fitzpatrick
The recent editorial published in the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander (“Economic Gains,” June 21) did a great job identifying both the up and the downsides of a booming construction economy. No one should overlook the tremendous benefits of low unemployment, expanded housing options and renewed construction and commercial activity to communities such as Ellsworth and to the individuals and families that make up our community.
However, the editorial pointed out a growing gap in the number of trained and educated skilled laborers available and willing to perform the myriad of tasks involved in building or maintaining residential or commercial buildings. The lack of a skilled workforce isn’t limited to the construction trades. It is being experienced by automotive repair shops, hospitals, computer repair centers, restaurants, hospitality, research laboratories, banks, retail establishments and a plethora of other businesses that make up the greater Hancock County economy. Ask any business owner what their No. 1 challenge is and you will most likely hear them lament the ability to hire people with the requisite skills to do the job.
We are fortunate to have a precious resource in our own back yard that has the ability and track record of producing the trained and motivated workforce that employers are so desperately seeking — the Hancock County Technical Center (HCTC). Currently part of the Ellsworth School District, HCTC serves over 200 students each year in such diverse vocational and college-track programs as automotive technology, culinary arts, diesel technology, early childhood education, healthcare, law enforcement, marine technology, multimedia design, welding and the first and only biomedical sciences Career and Technical Education program (CTE) in the state of Maine.
Through these exceptional programs, students have the opportunity to gain entry-level experience in preparation for immediate employment or post-secondary education/technical training. Additionally, students are able to earn college credits for successfully completing HCTC coursework at a variety of post-secondary education institutions throughout the state, thereby accelerating their entry into the workforce and reducing the growing cost of obtaining a post-secondary education.
The growing demand for skilled labor in Hancock County is problematic and only going to increase, but the school systems can be an integral part of the solution. As the technical needs of the workforce evolve over time, HCTC needs to be able to adapt accordingly requiring both programs and facilities that are flexible and capable of changing to meet the evolving needs of the business community. While consistently producing CTE Skills USA competition award- winning students at both the local and national level, HCTC is hamstrung by an aging facility that does not meet the needs necessary to train the workforce of the 21st century. Space constraints limit the number of students in the most popular programs while building constraints limit the breadth of training that can be offered to the more technically advanced programs. The future of workforce development in this region is dependent on an educational system and supporting facility that is state of the art and able to nimbly adjust to the changing needs of employers.
In light of this, the Ellsworth Business Development Corporation (EBDC), the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, private businesses and Ellsworth city officials have been partnering to develop a strategy which can establish HCTC as the premier CTE program in Maine, right here in our own backyard. As the planning process develops further, we will need your help to solicit both input and support from county residents, businesses, local, regional and state government agencies, school systems and many other partners, to develop a plan of action that turns the workforce and skilled labor issues we are facing today into opportunities for the current and future generations of Hancock County children.
As stated in the editorial, there is a silver lining, but we believe that rather than low unemployment and high demand for housing, the true silver lining is the recognition that we have a demonstrated center of excellence right here in Ellsworth that can repeatedly produce the type of workforce that we’re going to need for generations to come.
John Fitzpatrick of The Jackson Laboratory is chairman of the Ellsworth Business Development Corporation. Other members are Renee Kelly, University of Maine, Orono; Tony McKim, First National Bank; Robert Merrill, Merrill Enterprises; Lili Pew, The Knowles Company; John Ronan, Maine Coast Memorial Hospital; Curtis Simard, Bar Harbor Bank and Trust; Teri Sargent-Smith, Sargent Real Estate; Jake Taylor, Wallace Events; Kathy Taylor, Genotyping Center of America; Kevin Tesseo, Darlings Auto Group.