PITTSFIELD — Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that he values vocational training more than traditional education, and that classroom teachers are “a dime a dozen.”
The governor made the remarks at the unveiling of Cianbro’s new workforce development center, which aims to help replenish a diminishing workforce in the construction business through education and training.

Cianbro employees work Thursday at the company’s new workforce development facility in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy of Cianbro

LePage praised the new institute, which offers opportunities in vocational training that once were more widely available, such as shop class and home economics, which he said “were really good for our society back then.”

“Instead of hiding vocational education, we have to do what we used to do and bring it back to the front of the classroom,”

LePage said. He also took jabs at traditional education, saying Cianbro’s new facility places more value on mentoring, which is “more than just teaching out of a book.”
“Because teachers are a dime a dozen, mentors are what we really need in our system to prepare the next generation to take over,” LePage said. “It’s mentoring that’s more valuable. And I’m certain this institution is going to be mentoring.”

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in an interview afterward she was surprised to hear about the governor’s comments because compared to other New England states, Maine is struggling to fill many teaching positions.

She said the MEA does not agree with the “dime a dozen” comment and didn’t think any superintendent in Maine would.

Kilby-Chesley also said the MEA has supported vocational education in schools, now known as career and technical education. She said it prepares students for jobs that are more hands on, but that students can’t be lumped into just one category. She said students need to make choices, whether to pursue career and technical education or a path that leads toward higher education.

“Students will make choices based on their interests,” she said. “Not every student fits the same hole. Different pegs require different holes.”

Cianbro’s new workforce development department, called the Cianbro Institute, provides in-house training in construction, electrical work and other trades for its employees.

Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro, said the company was already providing this training in separate locations in Pittsfield, but “we’re busting out at the seams.” In introducing LePage, Vigue said Cianbro was passionate about people and the industry, which he said were values shared by the governor.

Peter Vigue, left, chief executive officer of Cianbro, speaks Thursday with Gov. Paul LePage at the company’s new workforce development facility in Pittsfield. Staff photo by Colin Ellis

LePage recounted that when he was first elected, he sent a cartoon to all the school superintendents in the state, depicting a plumber talking to a teacher. The teacher said they made $30,000 a year while the plumber said they made $65,000.

“And the superintendents were livid. You should see some of the comments I received,” LePage said. “But I was right.”

The actual cartoon was different, featuring a student who was going to be a welder and another student going for a liberal arts degree and different salary figures for both. The cartoon, which was actually sent to high school principals across the state, also included a handwritten note, saying: “Folks. We can do better and need to do better! Let’s put our students first.”

LePage said it takes six years to get a bachelor’s degree in Maine. He gave the example of his daughter, who he said had begun school planning to become a physician, but changed her mind and just graduated from law school. He said while that was good, it has become increasingly hard to find an electrician or plumber.

“I’m telling you the trades and vocational education are critical,” he said, adding that “you still have to have a roof over your head.”

He said technical education opportunities are important because “not everyone is going to go to college.”

Aside from placing value on vocational education, LePage commended Cianbro for being a forward-thinking company that has been an innovator in workplace safety.

“They were very, very interested in keeping their workers healthy and on the job,” he said.

Vigue said the kind of training the institute provides is valuable to young people from “humble backgrounds” or who have limited economic opportunities or low self-esteem.

“We are creating and building people who have integrity, character and skill,” he said.

The institute provides mentoring to current employees. Scott Mitchell, an instructor for the institute, said Cianbro has a four-year apprenticeship program that offers at least 576 hours of learning time both in the field and in a classroom.

Cianbro, which has been nationally recognized as the Healthiest and Safest Company in America by the American College of Occupation and Environmental Medicine, was started in 1949.

While the state’s workforce challenge could be perceived as a problem, Vigue said, it also presents an opportunity to “invest in the future of the workforce.”

“Cianbro created a fabulous facility that will help us move the ball,” Whyte said.

Michael Bellaman, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors, said the Cianbro facility is “awesome” and that he is continually impressed by Cianbro’s work. Companies like Cianbro, which is a member of ABC, give the organization a credible voice “as we work for legislation,” he said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis