Even with two degrees, Timothy Haiss was finding it difficult to break into the computer field. Most of the openings he saw required several years of experience, and there were few entry-level positions.

The job situation was so difficult that the 35-year-old Portland resident was thinking about taking his credentials — he earned an associate’s degree in Web design and animation in 2001 and another one in computer technology in May — and looking outside Maine for work.

But now, at no cost to him, Haiss is enrolled in a 72-hour course at Southern Maine Community College. When they successfully complete the program, Haiss and his 17 classmates will become Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technicians and be given interviews with PlumChoice, a Massachusetts-based company that plans to hire 350 Mainers as work-at-home service technicians over the next year.

“I came very close to moving out of Maine to get a job because there’s no jobs. It’s where I want to be, but it’s really hard to start here,” said Haiss, who worked in carpentry before getting into computers. “This is really great.”

The Maine Quality Centers, part of the Maine Community College System, provided a $550,000 grant to the training program. The centers provide training in areas ranging from lab animal science to team building to pipe welding for businesses that create jobs in Maine. There is no charge to the employer, which may be a single company or a group that forms to apply for assistance.

In October, PlumChoice opened its Center for Excellence in Scarborough to work with home-based technicians who live within 150 miles of the center. The company now has 126 employees at the center, who provide administrative support to 25 Maine-based technicians.

The business sells technical support services to Internet service providers, computer makers and retailers. It requires its technicians to hold the relevant information technology certifications.

What the company found in Maine was a workforce with the right skill base but without the certifications. So PlumChoice worked with the state to equip applicants with those qualifications.

“From a business standpoint, it really helps PlumChoice in its plans to grow business and grow jobs up in the Northeast,” said Rich Surace, senior vice president of operations.

The company now has employees in 40 states but wants to narrow that number to seven to 10, each with a facility for workers in the area.

For the past few years, Maine’s economic development strategy has included promoting Maine to large companies that might otherwise look overseas for information technology, said Catherine Renault, director of the state Office of Innovation. The strategy coincides with a move by many companies to establish technical support in the United States rather than overseas, in response to a consumers’ backlash against the outsourcing of such services.

Maine Quality Centers generally wouldn’t provide training for outbound call centers that do telemarketing. But such IT jobs are attractive because they require more skills, pay better and have less turnover, said James McGowan, director of the centers.

Surace said PlumChoice’s technical workers, including supervisors and managers, earn hourly wages that range from the high teens to the low 20s. The median wage for telemarketing call centers was $10.01 last year, according to Ruth Pease, an economic research analyst with the state Department of Labor.

Two more classes of 18 are scheduled to begin in the coming weeks, said Howard Burpee, the training program’s lead instructor and chairman of SMCC’s computer technology program. He expects the training to continue at least through the end of this year.

The training program is working with the Department of Labor’s CareerCenters to recruit and screen prospective applicants, who need some background in computers.

Haiss said the certification will help him even if he doesn’t end up working for PlumChoice.

“You can work for any company that has a help desk call center. It is applicable to other places,” he said. “It’s completely useful.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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