Student welders practice their skills, above, in cramped quarters at the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland. Other students take an introductory lesson on using the band saw, hand tools, and other carpentry tools, below. Photos by C. Parrish
Student welders practice their skills, above, in cramped quarters at the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland. Other students take an introductory lesson on using the band saw, hand tools, and other carpentry tools, below. Photos by C. Parrish
Sitting diagonally across from Primo Restaurant, on the ocean side of Route 73, the building that houses the Region 8 Mid-Coast School of Technology (MCST) squats next to the road, with a couple of shingled chicken coops for sale out front. It looks like a leftover from the manufacturing age of the mid-20th century.

The building is a relic, with cramped spaces. It's loud, lacks quiet classrooms for testing, has tiny little cubbies for welding, and the boat building program is jammed into a corner.

The building may be outdated, but the vocational, technical, and career training offered to the 305 students who attend has made a huge shift in recent years. Instruction today is more standardized and more rigorous than the shop class, home economics, and auto mechanics classes offered in the 1970s when the vocational and technical school moved into the building.

But there is no room to expand or include new programming at MCST, said Beth Fisher, the director of MCST, who said both are necessary to keep up with the kinds of skills and training needed for a modern workforce.

Under state law, schools must provide comprehensive vocational and technical career training that meets state standards. The school also works closely with Maine industries and instruction is aligned to the needs of Maine employers, up to a point. As technology changes, though, MCST needs to have the flexibility to instruct students for current and future academic and employment needs, said Fisher.

The automotive program, for example, needs to expand to include training on different fuel types, like hybrids. There is no space to expand within the current building.

Community forums on how to improve technical and vocational training, including access and infrastructure requirements, were held throughout Region 8 in October to collect ideas about what the public and school board members want at MCST.

Fisher and MCST?staff invited the public over to go inside the building for a tour to see what programs are on offer.

MCST offers a graphic design and animation program with a waiting list of students trying to get in. The machine shop turns out high school grads that walk out the door with a federally recognized professional certificate and the skills and acumen to pull in a $45,000 to $65,000 annual starting salary, with full benefits, if they go right to work. These machinists have the capability of machining by hand on a lathe, the old way, and programing computerized mills and lathes and other high-tech equipment in the modern way.

Other recent graduates have moved on from the machine shop to the Maine Maritime Academy with college credits already under their belts and then ended up working as course assistants because they were far ahead of their college classmates.

Students from Camden Hills, Medomak Valley, Oceanside East and West, Lincoln Academy, Islesboro, North Haven, and Vinalhaven come to the Region 8 MCST. Some of the island students have a commute of more than three hours a day. The school also has on-island programs and programs at each of the sending schools, for a total combined enrollment of 487 students.
MCST offers the only professional boat building program available at any of the 27 vocational technical schools in the state - a program that prepares students to work in the high-tech composite boat building world of today, with tests along the way to assess their proficiency. Able-Bodied Seaman training and third-party testing for professional certification is also available, and the MCST is the only place in the state where it is offered. The able-bodied seaman certificate is required to get a job as a deck hand or helmsman on cargo ships.

There is a robotics lab, a 3-D printer that students learn to program to build intricate gears, an introductory class that has teams designing lightweight hover craft using leaf-blower engines and plywood, followed by building then testing the craft to see how many hundreds of pounds they can lift. Mathematics are worked into the design, building, and testing phases of the project.

In the auto repair shop, students must pass standardized certification tests for brakes, for suspension, electric systems, engine performance, steering. To complete the program they must successfully perform 200 tasks on automobiles, so prospective employers know what they're getting. In auto body, students learn how to do estimates of how much labor is needed, which parts, and the total cost of repairs. In residential construction, a recent student graduated from the program and built his own house.

In all, the Mid-Coast School of Technology offers 17 on-site training programs, from culinary arts to principles of engineering - all of it to national and state education standards. The school also offers math, social studies, technical writing, and English coursework.

Vocational and technical education of this type is expensive, too expensive for an individual school to house it all, at least in rural Maine, according to Fisher.

"It is expensive, but let's put it in perspective," said Fisher. "It costs 8.2 cents out of every dollar in the Five Town CSD budget."

That's not much, for what you get, said Fisher.

Fisher has spent most of her six-year tenure at MCST improving the curriculum and the safety and functioning of the building's aging systems.

"We needed to focus on safety," she said. "That's what I did."

Ron Lamarre, a designer with Lavallee Brensinger Architects, is facilitating the public discussion. He brainstormed ideas with students, community members, and faculty, as well as toured the MCST building with consulting engineers.

During the October community forums, attendees discussed a host of ideas, including changing student schedules, bringing in industry sponsors and volunteers, internships, more adult and college education at the MCST site, selling the waterfront land and using the proceeds to help build a new building at a different site, fundraising, and more. Those ideas will be sifted through and Lamarre will provide a report by December that establishes priorities developed by those involved in the discussion, and provides options for improving education, including different options for a new building and estimated costs. The report will not include a specific building design.