GORHAM — I moved from California to Maine in 1995, to teach in the University of Southern Maine’s then-new engineering program. That fall, I walked into a store in town wearing a USM sweatshirt and the clerk asked me what I did. My answer was met with a statement that has been seared into my memory: “I didn’t know USM had an engineering program.”

Not everyone may have known about USM’s engineering program back then – or now – but they should, because our program helps support local industry and fuel our regional economy.

Up until 2005, USM’s engineering program was small but stable, graduating about 10 engineers per year. We knew we needed to grow, so we asked our industrial partners in the region for advice on starting an additional engineering program. The responses were remarkably consistent: They were looking for mechanical engineers with strong electromechanical skills.

That was an interesting response for two reasons. First, a traditional mechanical engineering degree does not typically include that component; in that sense, our degree would be unique and distinctive. Second, such a mechanical engineering degree would benefit from substantial synergy with the existing electrical engineering infrastructure.

Administrators like the word “synergy,” because it translates into efficiencies and cost reduction. Both reasons formed the core of our proposal. The new degree was approved in 2007, and enrollment (both in electrical and mechanical engineering) has grown exponentially since then, attracting 220 students and graduating 50 engineers per year as of last spring.

Growth is not expected to subside any time soon. Recently, our mechanical engineering program joined our electrical engineering program in being fully accredited. Accreditation is important because Maine, like most other states, won’t grant a professional engineer license unless you’ve graduated from a nationally accredited engineering program.

USM and the University of Maine are the only two universities in the University of Maine System with fully accredited engineering programs. The schools work together to ensure that a student may start his or her engineering program at either institution and transfer to the other for the completion of the degree with minimal disruption.

USM is also developing a stronger relationship with Southern Maine Community College, making it possible for a student who isn’t quite engineering-ready yet to start at SMCC and then transition to USM for the completion of their degree.

Our collaboration with the University of Maine and SMCC is so important to fueling our economy. The State of Maine needs engineers, as documented by the U.S. Department of Labor State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Maine is also unique in the sense that recruiting – and especially retaining – skilled professionals from out-of-state is a challenge. We must grow our own if we want to sustain the economy in the state and attract new businesses.

Meanwhile, are local companies getting what they’ve asked of us back in 2005? We believe so. A survey last spring revealed that more than half of our students are either employed or interning at a local company.

We counted 22 different engineering companies in southern Maine where our students had a paid internship. A recruiter from one of those companies gave a presentation to our students last fall and stated that he viewed internships as a very long job interview. Not surprisingly, most of our graduates end up employed right here in southern Maine.

Large, traditional engineering schools encourage their students to pursue an internship during the summer, and then come back to school in the fall to resume their full-time studies. USM is different. Proximity to technology companies both large and small makes it possible for our students to pursue internships year-round. For some, it may be possible to pay their way through college and graduate virtually debt-free. And having an internship is like starting a career before you graduate.

At the same time we are supporting local companies, our engineering students are giving back. The USM chapter of Engineers Without Borders is working on a project to design and install a solar hot water heater for an orphanage in Guatemala. Students in the Engineering Economics class develop service-learning projects for multiple area school districts ranging from energy-efficient lighting to cost-effective HVAC systems.

USM’s engineering program is making a substantial contribution to our economy and communities. And it made my day when I walked into a store the other day wearing my USM Engineering sweatshirt and heard back: “Oh yeah, I knew that.”