A workforce training program applauded nationally as an example of how industry and academia should work together is at risk of imploding among allegations of broken promises and concerns over student safety.

The 31 students enrolled in Southern Maine Community College’s two-year associate degree program in composites science and manufacturing finished their fall semester on Friday. But when they return in January, the program will look very different.

Andrew Schoenberg, a 35-year veteran of the composites industry and the program’s founding director, has resigned, citing a concern for student safety after the college’s president refused to reconsider eliminating a full-time lab manager position. Students are exposed to toxic chemicals and industrial machinery in the composites lab. His last day as an SMCC faculty member was Friday.

In addition, the Maine Composites Alliance, the industry group that collaborated with the college to create the program, has announced it will end its partnership and is removing more than $1 million worth of laboratory equipment from the school’s midcoast campus in Brunswick.

The unraveling of the public-private partnership has the potential to derail a much-heralded workforce development program that provides critical support to an emerging industry known for its innovation in the areas of materials used in wind power, construction and boat building.

Stephen Von Vogt, director of the Maine Composites Alliance, said in a Dec. 2 email to Derek Langhauser, interim president of the Maine Community College System, that the alliance was ending its partnership with SMCC.

“What existed as a truly unique and vital workforce development program for all facets of our growing industry has unraveled into a dysfunctional, irreparable situation that will result in a program that no longer meets the needs of our industry in Maine,” Von Vogt wrote.

As a result of that email, Langhauser invited Von Vogt and other members of the alliance’s board to meet with him on Monday to discuss the future of the relationship. Langhauser did not respond to an opportunity to comment for this article.

Ron Cantor, president of SMCC, sought to counter what he called “misunderstandings” about the fate of the college’s composites program. He confirmed Schoenberg had resigned and that the Maine Composites Alliance was removing its Composites Engineering and Research Lab, or CERL. But he said the college has its own lab and has already begun a search for Schoenberg’s replacement. The changes will not affect the program, he said, or weaken the school’s commitment to provide workforce training for the composites industry.

“We wholeheartedly agree with MCA that our partnerships with Maine’s composites employers are important to the success of the program,” said Cantor. “But whether we are able to continue this particular partnership, we have no intention of backing away from our commitment to delivering a skilled composites workforce for Maine.”

But without the vital hands-on training provided by CERL, Von Vogt said the students will definitely be short-changed. SMCC’s lab is focused on understanding manufacturing machinery, while CERL provided the research and development component of the program – the “science” part of the degree.

Andrew Schoenberg resigned as director of Southern Maine Community College’s composites science program over concerns about students’ safety.

Andrew Schoenberg resigned as director of Southern Maine Community College’s composites science program over concerns about students’ safety. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Under Schoenberg’s direction, the program invited businesses within the composites industry to bring problems to the lab so students can understand real-world situations and help design solutions to them. The businesses pay for that work, and the money is funneled to the nonprofit MCA, where it is used for operating expenses. As of August, the lab had received $94,360 for the work performed for businesses. Von Vogt said that when expenses are factored in, it’s a break-even situation.

“If we’re not connected to the program – and when I say ‘we’ I mean the composites industry in the state – then they have no way to know what our needs are and we don’t know what kind of training the students received,” Von Vogt said. “The direct feedback loop to training is not there anymore.”

A ROCKY RELATIONSHIP

Education has been the cornerstone of the Maine Composites Alliance’s mission since it was created in the 1980s, according to Martin Grimnes, who helped found the alliance along with two composites companies in Maine.

“We cannot lose sight of the value of education for this industry,” he said. “It’s been around 50 years but still in its infancy because of a lack of education.”

Von Vogt at the alliance had been working off and on with Southern Maine Community College for the past decade to get a training program off the ground.

In 2011, the alliance and the college entered into a partnership to launch a two-year degree program. The alliance recruited Schoenberg, who was a former senior development engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor. He accepted the job in June 2011.

Cantor was hired as SMCC’s president the month after.

For the next three years, the program gained momentum and grew. It was the third fastest-growing program at SMCC by enrollment, growing from 20 students during the 2012-13 school year to 33 in the 2014-15 school year, according to the school’s figures. The program has been profiled in composites trade publications and held out as an example of successful workforce development by industry leaders, academics and politicians.

Maine Composites Alliance in 2012 established its own lab, the Composites Engineering and Research Laboratory, or CERL, on SMCC’s Brunswick campus. Schoenberg had dual roles: He was an SMCC faculty member and chairman of the school’s composites program, as well as director of CERL, which provided research and development services to composite companies around the country. Because of the close integration, students often worked on the projects the companies brought to CERL.

That exposure to real-world problems is what made the program unique, according to students such as Nick Brubaker and Colin Beebe, both of whom expect to graduate from the program in the spring.

“Not only did CERL bring industry into the school, but I felt like it made it seem like we were working on something bigger than going to school,” said Brubaker, a 30-year-old Westbrook resident, after taking his finals on Wednesday morning.

The problems started in May 2014, according to Schoenberg. It was then that the school notified him that it was eliminating a full-time lab manager position when a grant ran out that had been covering the $50,000-a-year position.

Schoenberg said the chemicals used to create composite materials can be very toxic. Mishandled, they could burst into flames or blind someone, he said. It was this lab manager’s responsibility to make sure the chemicals were prepared properly, waste was disposed of correctly, and the ventilation systems were all working before the students arrived.

The position is critical to ensure the safety of students, Schoenberg said. Even after the Maine Composites Alliance offered to fund half the position, or $25,000 a year, the college wouldn’t change its decision.

A temporary agreement was made to have a Maine Composites Alliance employee, and graduate of the SMCC program, act as lab manager this past semester. But when the school wouldn’t budge, Schoenberg resigned.

“Ultimately, I didn’t want to run a program that would put students at risk,” Schoenberg said, “and I haven’t handed out a Band-Aid in four and a half years.”

Cantor said student safety is among the school’s “top priorities.” He said the school couldn’t afford to fund a full-time lab manager position, but that it has “hired an experienced instructor to teach lab courses this spring and added an experienced lab assistant for each lab course to further support student safety and expand hands-on learning.”

In addition, the college has a full-time coordinator of environmental health and safety who ensures compliance with all applicable safety standards, Cantor said.

“Student safety – in all of our programs – is one of our top priorities and an important part of the hands-on learning experience we provide our students,” he said.

Ken Priest, another longtime member of the composites industry and CEO of Kenway Corp. in Augusta, said the school’s rationale for not funding the lab manager position is “baloney.” Priest is convinced something else must be going on, and speculated that it might be about the payments the businesses make to CERL.

“I think there was poor communication between CERL and the college about that money,” Priest said. “When people don’t communicate well, they always think the worst. So I think you may have had a situation where the college people felt we have a so-called nonprofit, but there’s cash flowing here on our campus and we don’t have any control of it.”

Equipment awaits transfer from the campus in Brunswick. Members of Maine’s composites industry say the lab that’s leaving SMCC gave students a focus on research and not just on manufacturing. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Equipment awaits transfer from the campus in Brunswick. Members of Maine’s composites industry say the lab that’s leaving SMCC gave students a focus on research and not just on manufacturing. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Von Vogt said the school has a pattern of mishandling workforce training programs. It also botched a collaborative effort to create a composites certificate program that ran from 2006 to 2010 and was located in the old Times Record building in Brunswick.

“Screw it up once, fine. Screw it up twice and that’s a message to us,” Von Vogt said.

STUDENTS RAISE CONCERNS

Chris Cohen, a 38-year-old Portland resident, just finished his first semester in SMCC’s composites program. The news of Schoenberg and CERL’s departure “definitely rocks the boat,” he said.

“A lot of us in our first semester are pretty shook up by the events,” he said. “It felt like getting the rug pulled out from beneath our feet a little bit.”

Cohen said he was attracted to the program because of his interest in composites and its close integration with industry that would make job placement that much easier.

“Andy (Schoenberg) is a big loss, but we can probably move on from that and find our footing again, but the relationship with industry and the blessing, sign-off and endorsement of the Maine Composites Alliance is really important, so you have to mend that fence,” Cohen said Thursday after leaving the final class of Introduction to Composites.

Joel Messinger, another composites student who just finished his first semester, said he thinks the changes will be “detrimental” not only to the students but to the whole composites industry.

“The future of the composites industry in Maine needs the workforce SMCC is producing right now,” Messinger wrote in an email.

He cited the direct connection with industry that having CERL co-located with the program provided to students.

“I and my classmates are just beginning our journey at SMCC and still have great hope for the future, but it is dismaying to think these critical elements of our education may be removed,” he said. “Instructors are replaceable, but an unequivocally direct connection with over 130 companies and an evolving industry may not be.”

Like Messinger, Cohen said he hasn’t given up hope.

“I still hope cooler heads prevail and whatever politics are involved or personal ego or whatever it is that the greater good for the program and people like me who signed up for it ultimately wins out over any kind of what I feel like are probably solvable conflicts here,” Cohen said. “It’s all about people getting their training and going on to good positions and well-paying positions in companies and bringing the whole composite industry in Maine to new heights.”

SALVAGING SOMETHING

Despite all that’s gone on, Schoenberg, Von Vogt and the other members of the composites industry hope a relationship can be salvaged.

The alliance has drafted a document that stipulates concessions from the college before it’s confident a partnership between the college and the industry can move forward. Among the requirements are that the lab be run under the same federal guidelines for composites workplaces, and that the alliance’s board members must remain the program’s advisory board “so that we can be assured that the students are receiving the level of education required by our industry.”

The alliance is also asking that a new memorandum of understanding be signed by both parties, with one stipulation.

“If the agreement is between SMCC and MCA, the signatory must be someone other than Ron Cantor, due to our lack of confidence in his ability to maintain and honor a partnership agreement with our organization,” it reads.

Cantor reiterated his commitment to working with industry.

“We do need to develop a new and sustainable model. We believe that is an achievable goal with MCA, and we remain interested in working with the alliance to make that happen,” he wrote in an email.

Schoenberg hopes the college will be able to rebuild a program that is able to train students for careers in the composites industry.

“From my perspective, a solid educated workforce at the community college or associates degree level is critical to the composites industry, so I welcome the possibility that the program becomes successful,” Schoenberg said. “I’m in no way, shape or form hoping it fails. I want it to be successful. As a member of the Maine Composites Alliance board of directors, I know how necessary that level of educated workforce is.”