New Hampshire college luring students from southern Maine with composites-making classes

02/11/2016 by Edward D. Murphy

As Great Bay Community College offer Mainers in-state tuition and job prospects, Southern Maine Community College is revamping its program. That concerns Maine companies. 

A Portsmouth, New Hampshire, community college is recruiting students in southern Maine, offering in-state tuition rates to help fill its composites manufacturing classes with students who have near-guaranteed jobs at a nearby jet engine manufacturer.

At the same time, Southern Maine Community College’s composites program is restructuring after its director departed late last year in a dispute with school administrators, which led to the loss of student access to a high-tech composites lab in Brunswick.

The differing situations – a program expanding in New Hampshire and a similar one in Maine being forced to revamp – are raising workforce-development concerns among Maine composites companies. Composites – material made up of disparate elements that when combined have unique characteristics – are touted as one of the most promising industries to bring back manufacturing and high-paying jobs to the state. The Maine Composites Alliance, a trade group, represents nearly 70 companies that rely on composites in their manufacturing processes, from boat builders to construction companies, aeronautics firms to textile makers.

The program at Great Bay Community College is run by a former director of SMCC’s Maine Advanced Technology Center. Debra Mattson left her Maine job in 2012 and a year later, kicked off Great Bay’s new Advanced Materials Manufacturing Program, which is closely tied to a manufacturing plant in Rochester, New Hampshire, where composite parts for jet engines are produced.

Students can take a six-month certification program at Great Bay, learn about advanced composites, applied mathematics, manufacturing techniques and how to read technical blueprints. Once they gain a certificate, dozens go onto jobs at the Safran/Albany International plant while they continue to take classes at Great Bay to earn an associate degree.

“There have been graduating classes where I could have placed twice as many students as we had, or more,” said Mattson, who said other composite manufacturers in New Hampshire are also eager to hire graduates of the program. “This has been a collaboration with industry like I have never experienced before.”

The courses at Great Bay were part of the incentive package offered to Safran/Albany to bring the manufacturing plant to Rochester. The program provides most of the training for technicians at the plant – up to 500 are needed, Mattson said.

Mattson said the students who get certification land jobs that pay $15 or $16 an hour to start. Workers get a “significant” raise after six months and another in a year, she said, and can move up the ladder at the plant as they take additional courses at the community college. Those looking to get four-year degrees in engineering can take courses at the University of New Hampshire where they have a transfer agreement, she said.

Maine Composites Alliance technician Drew Sfirri cuts a piece of mesh polypropylene at Southern Maine Community College in Brunswick in December. When the alliance and SMCC couldn’t come to terms, the equipment was moved into new space at the nearby TechPlace building.

IN-STATE TUITION RATES

The decision to extend in-state tuition rates of $200 a credit to students in southern Maine and northern Massachusetts – they must live within 50 miles of the Great Bay campus, roughly the distance to Portland – reflects a growing need for trained workers, the school said. It’s considered a pilot program but is likely to be extended, GBCC said.

In the meantime, SMCC’s composite program is in the midst of a restructuring after a high-profile split late last year with the main industry group in the state.

The college’s associate degree program in composite science and manufacturing is continuing this semester, while a search for a new director and possible revamping is ongoing.

Andrew Shoenberg resigned as the program’s director in December after the college said it wouldn’t reconsider its plan to eliminate a lab manager position, a post Shoenberg said was essential to maintain safety protocols. The lab, situated on the SMCC campus at Brunswick Landing, was equipped with state-of-the-art composite manufacturing and testing equipment set up by the Maine Composites Alliance.

When Schoenberg and the college couldn’t come to terms, he moved the high-end equipment out of the school and into new space at the nearby TechPlace building. A very modest lab remains at SMCC.

Stephen Von Vogt, the managing director of the MCA, said the relationship that composite manufacturers in New Hampshire have with GBCC is the model the composites alliance in Maine had been pursuing with SMCC.

“They should go down there and see what they’re doing,” Von Vogt said, referring to SMCC and GBCC. “We’d like to see 10 times the number of these institutions. That’s a perfectly functioning arrangement and we hope to see that replicated in this state.”

Van Vogt’s comments reflect the ongoing frustration many Maine companies have expressed between their need for trained workers and what they see as an unresponsive community college system. When SMCC announced it was opening a campus on Brunswick Landing and offering a composites program, it was heralded as a way to bridge that divide.

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the redevelopment of the former Navy base into Brunswick Landing, touted SMCC’s arrival, saying, “Students of the program have access to training that puts them in position to immediately hit the ground running as they enter the composites/advanced materials and aerospace/aviation industries. Manufacturers that are considering Brunswick Landing will have access to workforce training programs affiliated with the college, which is located right here on campus.”

RESTRUCTURING PROGRAM

Dan Abbott, an SMCC professor working on restructuring the college’s composites program, said he is looking at the school’s curriculum and writing a job description for a director to replace Shoenberg, who had a dual role as chairman of the college’s composites program and director of the industry-financed lab.

Abbott said Shoenberg may have been uniquely suited to fill both positions because he was able to understand the needs of the industry and was a gifted teacher. He said he doubts the college can find someone with that unique combination, but is optimistic the school can hire someone who can focus exclusively on the composites program.

“We still have a program and it’s not a bad thing that we ended up with this division,” he said. “I’m convinced we can do this, but it’s going to look different.”

The goal now, he said, is to come up with a program that is sustainable, serves students and operates a lab that is safe. Abbott said the Maine program isn’t set up like GBCC’s, with the goal of matching the education students receive to one company’s needs. He also said SMCC focuses on providing associate degrees in composites sciences, rather than a shorter certificate program.

Von Vogt said the industry isn’t closing the door on some future alliance with SMCC and said it’s a shame that the rift led to the loss of access to the lab for SMCC students.

The lab, now in TechPlace, is currently used by alliance members to conduct applied research, product development and prototype development, he said. The work involves products ranging from sophisticated aerospace composites to surfboards.

“It’s probably one of the finest polymer characterization labs in the Northeast,” he said. “But we’re not in the education business, we’re in the servicing the composite industry business.”

Portland Press Herald