It started with a scholarship and the kernel of a plan.

Dan Lambert had already been studying machining for two years as a high school student at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology, and as a graduating senior faced a crossroads about what to do next.

He knew he wanted an engineering degree. The question was where to get it – and how to pay for it.

“I figured it was (Southern Maine Community College) or (University of Maine) Orono, and I knew Orono was out of my expense range,” Lambert said.

Wanting to avoid student loan debt, he considered the advice of his great-uncle, who was already in the machining business at Saco Defense, building guns.

“He told me, find a company that will invest in you as much as you are going to invest in them. What I found out is that Pratt & Whitney is one of those companies,” said Lambert, referring to the North Berwick-based jet engine manufacturing plant.

He decided to attend SMCC, won a $3,000 college scholarship from Pratt & Whitney, and wound up taking out only $7,000 in student loans to get an associate degree in precision manufacturing. He graduates in May, and already knows what comes next: a job at Pratt & Whitney.

“When I got the scholarship, it was a game-changer. I put it on my resume, got the interview, and I’m sure that’s why they hired me,” said Lambert.

“I start the day after graduation.”

Lambert, 21, will earn $40,000 a year there, but the real financial payoff will be the company’s tuition reimbursement program. They won’t pay off his $7,000 in student loans from SMCC, but after a year of working at Pratt & Whitney, the company will reimburse future school costs, up to $40,000 for a bachelor’s degree, and up to $60,000 for a master’s.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work for them,” said Lambert, who is already thinking about getting a master’s in engineering.

He’s pretty confident it’s the right way to get an education for him, particularly when he hears what some of his friends have done.

“I have a friend who went to a four-year (university) studying theater,” he recounted. “He’s $60,000 in debt and working at Target.”

Avoiding a pile of college debt takes some work, he said.

“You’ve just got to have a plan. That’s what I did.”

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