Nathan Adair practices welding in a class at Southern Maine Community College’s Midcoast Campus in Brunswick on Wednesday. Maine community colleges are receiving $1 million to buy a mobile welding lab. The lab will allow the community college system to extend its welding instruction throughout the state. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When Marissa Wright moved back to Maine recently, she signed up for a manufacturing technicians’ course at Southern Maine Community College knowing she would need more skills to get a good industrial job.

During the course, Wright and her wife, Danielle Avila-Perez, learned how to operate tools, read a blueprint and use math to help with measurements. They also learned welding – and Wright said she was heartened to learn recently that the community college system had landed a $1 million federal grant to purchase a mobile welding lab that can be sent to any of the system’s seven campuses to teach welding skills.

“If they can expand that program, it will be very helpful,” Wright said, adding that the instruction has been difficult or impossible to get for students in northern Maine and other rural parts of the state.

Wright and Avila-Perez both landed jobs this month at Bath Iron Works, which provided an instructor and space near its shipyard for the welding courses.

The partnership between the shipyard and the community colleges “represents one of our most valuable talent pipelines,” said John Mason, BIW’s vice president of human resources.

Mason said the mobile welding lab “can introduce Mainers statewide to important job skills (and) can lead to rewarding careers for people who otherwise may not get that opportunity because of where they live.”


Lead instructor Penni Barbeau adjusts Audria Ariza’s welding mask on Ariza’s first day of welding at SMCC’s Midcoast Campus in Brunswick on Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Community college officials said the partnership with BIW has been a standout success.

Since 1950, they said, more than 2,000 graduates have gone through the program and gotten jobs with the shipyard. BIW has told college officials they expect to need more employees, and about 350 with welding skills, in coming years.

Penni Barbeau, a BIW employee and the lead welding class instructor at SMCC’s Midcoast Campus in Brunswick, said it’s important to teach more young people industrial skills such as welding. She said the need at manufacturing companies is growing because many of the Maine workers with those skills are getting older and retiring. Not only does BIW need workers with those skills, she said, there are many other companies in the state with a high demand for welders.

In the past, Barbeau said, teens learned welding in high school shop classes. But many schools have scaled back those offerings, and students don’t often even have the option of learning those skills.

“Welding is a dying art,” Barbeau said. “There are a lot of kids who don’t know how to weld.”

As a result, many companies are looking to community colleges to teach the basics of welding, knowing that they can then provide on-the-job experience to help strengthen those skills, she said.


Lead instructor Penni Barbeau demonstrates welding techniques for student Audria Ariza at SMCC’s Midcoast Campus in Brunswick on Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Barbeau also thinks the mobile lab will help create a larger pool of students learning to weld. She said distance is a big factor for a community college course that runs about three weeks.

For many, those classes would mean daily commutes measured in hours. Some students can stay in dorms in southern Maine while they learn welding, she said, but three weeks away from home and, in many cases, other jobs, can be a financial hardship.

“There’s only so many that can go so far” to take courses, Barbeau said. The mobile lab “will be very convenient for the kids that can’t travel so far.”

James Whitten, dean of workforce development at the Midcoast Campus, said the impact of the new mobile welding lab “is going to be vast.”

Whitten can envision it not only traveling to campuses, but also setting up outside of businesses that have partnerships with the community colleges to help employees learn new skills, or going to technical education centers for classes for high school students.

“The ability to bring it on the road, that’s huge,” Whitten said. “It just creates an opportunity for us to bring technical skills to folks where they are.”

Whitten said many companies and industries in Maine need welders, and he anticipates the need will grow as work begins on some of the infrastructure projects funded by Congress in a bill that passed last fall.

Whitten said the mobile lab also will augment existing welding labs, like the one in Brunswick that trains workers for BIW.

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