Tom Teague had never been inside a factory until his Thornton Academy class toured Pratt & Whitney’s North Berwick plant, which, among other things, makes parts for some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world, including Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation F-35 and F-22 fighter jets. Now, he’s working at the plant following an internship at Pratt & Whitney in collaboration with Saco-based Thornton, an independent school serving grades 6 through 12.

The 2-year-old internship program at Thornton, the first in the country to use a hands-on curriculum developed by a machinists’ association, is trying to find good jobs for its graduates and fill a gaping hole in Maine’s workforce.

Teague, who now works full time for the company, isn’t as intimidated as he was the first time he stepped through Pratt & Whitney’s doors as a student.

“When I first started, I was scared to come into a huge machine shop,” he said. “This is my first job. I’m glad I did it.”

Thornton’s program combines an online curriculum from the National Tooling & Machining Association, or NTMA, with hands-on experience at Pratt & Whitney and other Maine manufacturers, including Yale Cordage and Arundel Machine Tool, to expose students to options of a career in manufacturing – an area in which Maine needs skilled labor. Pratt & Whitney, which has 1,700 employees, has more than 50 positions open in North Berwick, while the state as a whole has more than 700 positions open in all aspects of manufacturing, according to the job site Indeed.com.

It’s a business segment that is critical to the state’s economic health, contributing $5.1 billion in economic output and accounting for about 9 percent of Maine’s gross state product, according to the Maine 2015 Manufacturing Summit Report. Some 1,775 factories employ more than 54,900 individuals, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The average annual salary for workers in manufacturing was $66,653, according to 2014 State Manufacturing Data figures.

Thornton was the first high school in the country to adopt the NTMA curriculum, which was targeted at workers already in the field who wanted to hone their skills and adapted for students.

“Parents see jobs in manufacturing as a career-limiting step,” said Russ Chaput, human resources manager at Pratt & Whitney. “Here (in Maine) there aren’t many jobs you can come to without a university degree and still grow and learn and make a salary to live.”

A CAREER PATH

Teague’s classmate Nick Claesson is also a Pratt & Whitney employee now.

“I thought of factories as having smoke under the ceilings,” he said before he toured the facility. “This one was different than I imagined.”

Like Teague, Claesson said he’s glad he chose a manufacturing career.

“There’s a lot of opportunity at Pratt & Whitney. I found a career, not just a job,” said Claesson, who worked part time at a Market Basket supermarket while he was in high school. “I have income, benefits, a comfortable living in the future and a full career here.”

Not that there aren’t challenges. Claesson acknowledges the military line grinders, which sheer off extra metal from the fine parts for the jets, can be nerve wracking to operate.

“The grinders are a high-volume unit for military and commercial use,” said Ron Enders, operations manager at Pratt & Whitney, who helped oversee Claesson and Teague as interns and now as employees. “They take large hunks of exotic metals and turn them into parts for jet engines that you see at airports or in the F-35 and F-22 fighter jets. The grinders remove metal by abrading versus cutting. Some materials are so hard you can’t cut them with the CNC (computer numerical control) lathe. It will destroy your machine.”

Claesson said the NMTA class did cover metallurgy, the study of the physical and chemical behavior of metals and metallic compounds, to prepare for the production work.

“The hardest part of the job is the standard of quality because it can be a very tight tolerance,” said Claesson, referencing the machine work.

ROOM TO ADVANCE

Enders said the company has more than 100 different job codes, offering a lot of opportunity to employees to advance or try something different.

The North Berwick factory is 1 million square feet, making it the largest manufacturer in Maine under one roof, according to Chaput. The company’s headquarters are in East Hartford, Connecticut, and overall revenue was about $14 billion in 2015. It is a subsidiary of United Technologies (NYSE: UTX), a $56 billion aircraft maker based in Farmington, Connecticut.

Of the 10 Thornton students who enrolled in the first NMTA program and performed internships, all 10 graduated and have internships, jobs or went to college, said Rene Menard, headmaster of Thornton. The program requires students to commit to six semesters, with classes meeting about 80 minutes daily or about 300 hours per semester in the sophomore, junior and senior years to total 1,800 hours.

There also are labs. To get a job, typically starting in machine tooling, the students must first graduate from Thornton and be 18 years old.

“It’s a public relations challenge because there is a perception that manufacturing is dead,” said Menard. “We did marketing to change that perspective. We said there are highly skilled manufacturing jobs in Maine and there’s a gap filling them. So we went out to visit companies like Pratt & Whitney, Arundel and Yale Cordage.”

Some 100 students at Thornton were interested in getting into the competitive NTMA and internship program, said Allan Young, an administrator at the school.

“We looked at their math and science skills, attendance and other factors and whether they had what it takes to complete the program,” he said.

That also includes the soft skills of learning to work with others with different backgrounds, experience levels and genders. Tom Narciso, who teaches at Thornton and at Southern Maine Community College, helps with both the student labs and the knowledge of the soft skills.

“Precision manufacturing is what this is all about,” he said. “Anyone who endeavors to be in this trade needs to use math, geometry and have a work ethic. It’s not for everyone.”

However, those who pursue the job can get $10-$15 an hour out of high school and $20 an hour after four or five years. They can rise rapidly, with a 30-year tool maker earning up to $40 an hour, Narciso said.

The demand is not expected to lessen in the near future as older workers in manufacturing are nearing retirement age, just as they are in other industries in Maine where the average age is 43.8, the oldest in the nation.

“Baby boomers are retiring out of manufacturing. We won’t have the numbers to do the labor,” said Narciso. “In another decade, the world will be their (young employees’) oyster.”

Not all students come out of the internships clearly fixed on a career in machine tooling and manufacturing. Sarah Picard, who also was in the first NMTA class of Thornton students, thought she wanted to go into the trades because her dad is an electrician. But she’s now studying at the University of Maine in Orono and toggling between art education and engineering.

“I can’t picture myself doing machining full time,” said Picard, who interned at Yale Cordage. “But I would get into machining and then later be a teacher or own an art studio.”

Still, she said she liked the class at Thornton and the help from teachers.

“This is a good opportunity. There is high demand for machinists, especially in Maine. Trades are a good thing to get into,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of girls in this industry. But at Yale Cordage they taught me that it doesn’t matter that I’m a girl. They taught me a lot.”

Narciso said the demand for precision manufacturing jobs will remain high because they are integrated into many different kinds of industries, such as medical device manufacturing and ship and boat building. The NMTA is an innovative way to introduce students into a career path, he said.

“Thornton isn’t afraid of innovative things. They deserve kudos.”