PORTLAND (WGME) -- Engineers in Maine are getting older and retiring.
According to data with the University of Maine, 27 percent of engineers are 55 or older and will leave nearly 2,000 jobs open over the next decade. Educators, recruiters and labor experts are now trying to address the pipeline problem.
"The labor crisis is why I got back into education,” robotics teacher at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science Jon Amory said. “Maine desperately needs more people going into the trades; more people going into engineering."
Amory says the education templates he saw in Massachusetts while working at Boston Dynamics on the iconic “dog robots” should be replicated in specialty tech schools, and it led him to help found Baxter Academy in 2013. He’s among the educators on the front lines who help feed aspiring engineers into the academic pipeline, hoping they stay on as engineers.
“Twenty-five percent of engineering graduates take non-engineering jobs,” University of Maine Dean and professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Dr. Dana Humphrey said. “And 40 percent of Maine graduates take their first engineering job out of state.”
It’s a problem of both recruitment and retention in Maine.
“For every engineer there's a whole group of machinists, other builders, craftsmen of all kinds or another, so for every engineer, you lose 4 or 5 jobs as well as that (engineer),” Amory said.
He was also a philosophy minor in college, a field he says is valuable into any critical thinking field, but sometimes he parlays philosophy directly into the classroom.
"I grew up in an age when we were told, 'you can be anything you want to be.' I don't think we live in that age anymore. We live in a world that desperately needs people in the STEM fields. The world right now needs more mediocre engineers than it needs great writers,” Amory said.
But even if teachers like Amory could convince students to stay in their field, the looming labor crisis would still be a challenge. Retention challenges beget recruitment challenges.
Nate Wildes is the executive Director of Live + Work Maine, a nonprofit tasked with attracting skilled trade and professional talent across all fields to the state, and one of the primary instruments in the retention-recruitment tool box is the Opportunity Maine Tax Credit.
"Even if we kept 100 percent of everybody who was graduating from a Maine college or university. That wouldn't solve our workforce problem,” Wildes said.
"What it says is, 'bring your education and bring your student debt to Maine and work here full-time for a Maine-based employer and the state will reimburse your student loan payments at the end of the year when you file your taxes,'” Wildes said.
The program currently offers up to $4,500 in tax credits to any graduate anywhere in the U.S., if that person has graduated since 2016. Graduates who went to school in Maine are eligible prior to 2016, and the program is open to any degree-holder; it does not discriminate on specialization or major. By comparison, debt forgiveness programs in Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts are only offered to medical professionals. In 2018, according to Maine Revenue Service data, more than 700,000 graduates got back more than $17 million dollars.
In the meantime, other novel programs in nearby states that aim to attract immigrating workers that could be replicated in Maine would have be aggressively scaled-up in funding and scope. In Vermont, a program that launched in 2018 to attract remote workers is limited to a $500,000 budget, according to the Commissioner of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. According to state records as of Feb. 15, 2019, the agency had received 25 applications and was planning to approve “four or five” of the grant awards in 2019, worth up to $10,000 per person, but dispersed over two years ($5,000 each year). And the program stipulates that the grant money be used to reimburse expenses related to moving to the state.