AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Across the country, people are quitting their jobs and businesses are getting more and more desperate for workers as they deal with a topsy-turvy labor market. To recruit workers in Maine, one manufacturer has launched a program to train inexperienced workers in-house and pay them for it in the hopes of filling hundreds of open positions. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg has more.
ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Each day, thousands of workers walk through the gates of the Bath Iron Works shipyard. Below a canopy of mechanical cranes, they fabricate and assemble an intricate array of complex metal pieces into what will eventually become destroyers for the U.S. Navy. At its peak during World War II, the yard launched a ship every 17 days. Today, the highly specialized process takes a lot longer.
JON MASON: We're currently operating at about a ship and a half a year. And we'd like to be building two ships a year.
FEINBERG: Jon Mason is the company's vice president of human resources. He says in order to speed up that pace and replace a generation of retiring workers, Bath Iron Works has been in the midst of a decade-long hiring spree in which it's brought on more than 10,000 new recruits. It's hoping to add another 1,500 by the end of next year. But he says finding help is a lot harder than it was in the 1980s, when the shipyard could easily pull manufacturing workers from Maine's paper industry.
MASON: Fast forward to today, it's a completely different environment. A lot of those industries like textiles or paper mills or other things like that that help support a manufacturing workforce don't exist today.
FEINBERG: And that's put the company in a similar position to many other businesses - unable to find enough workers with the right skills. Tony Carnevale, with Georgetown University's Center on Education in the Workforce, says the issue is years in the making. He says the U.S. has failed to adequately fund job training programs for decades.
TONY CARNEVALE: Back in the Nixon era, in the 1970s, it didn't matter. Seventy percent of the good jobs only required high school, including in Maine. But that's flipped. It's now 70% of the good jobs require at least some education and training at the post-secondary level.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)
FEINBERG: Though facing that new reality, about three years ago, Bath Iron Works partnered with a local community college to develop its own training in-house. Inside a cavernous industrial building, new recruits spend three weeks learning everything from basic welding to reading a tape measure. The training is free and comes with a $500 stipend each week, plus a job interview at the end.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL GRINDING)
FEINBERG: In the midst of her second day of training, 21-year-old Chantelle Ahearn (ph) says the promise of a stable career with good benefits is what led her here. She lost her old job driving a snowplow in the middle of the pandemic.
CHANTELLE AHEARN: No one was hiring, so I wasn't working for a little bit, which then caused me to - my bills behind. So then I was like, I need a job.
FEINBERG: She found a few short-term gigs to scrape by, but Ahearn (ph) is hoping for a job with more permanence. Bath Iron Works says its average starting pay is just shy of $20 an hour, with potential for advancement after a few months.
AHEARN: For example, if I wanted to go to McDonald's and get something to eat, I don't have to worry what's in my bank account, you know? At the end of the day, I'll have a steady amount and be able to afford things.
FEINBERG: So far, the company says it's recruited hundreds of workers this way, and the state is looking to replicate the approach. Officials hope that with many workers retiring in the country's oldest state, these kinds of short-term programs could help fill thousands of jobs statewide. For NPR news, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Bath, Maine.
CHANG: This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.
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