Editor's note: In a yearlong occasional series starting today, we look at manufacturing in Maine, who's making it and where the industry is headed.
Days before a middle school career fair, organizers called would-be presenter Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine.
"(They said): 'We only have four kids so we're going to cancel you,'" Martin recounted. "I was like, 'Wait, wait; we'll talk to four kids.'"
They canceled anyway.
Martin's task: Spark interest, fight perception and spread the news about manufacturing — and that news is not all bad.
"Some old traditional manufacturing, certainly in the new economy, has changed," she said. "Many of the companies, the up-and-coming and some of the high-tech precision manufacturing companies, are doing very well. The manufacturing sector on the national level actually brought us out of this recession."
She counts MAMe membership at more than 400. The group will hold its annual meeting in Lewiston on Thursday.
Maine lost nearly one-third of its manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2011, according to Department of Labor records. Companies more often shrunk than closed altogether. The last two years employment has held steady at 50,700. During the decade, the average weekly wage continued to rise.
The lowest-paid, lowest-skill jobs have left faster due to pressure from foreign competition and automation, said Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Labor Department's Center for Workforce Research and Information.
"There's been a real rotation in manufacturing to higher-skilled jobs," he said. "What's left largely are businesses that have capital-intensive, high-tech processes."
Shipbuilding and papermaking are well-known in the state. Less recognized: Companies making turbines, ice, dentures, sprinklers and signs.
Maine is projected to lose 6,700 more manufacturing jobs by 2020, according to a Center for Workforce Research and Information report in August.
However, Mills also anticipates a hiring wave: "A lot of job openings are expected because a large share of the workforce is on the verge of retirement. Many of those businesses are really kind of up against it."
According to state records and the Center for Workforce Research and Information:
* Manufacturing employment peaked in Maine at 114,600 jobs in 1979.
* Sixty years ago, that one industry made up 40 percent of the jobs in the state. In 2011 it was 8.5 percent.
* In 2011, transportation equipment manufacturing had the most employees (8,220), chemical manufacturing the highest weekly average wage ($1,601) and fabricated metal products the most firms (268).
Moving forward, rebranding Maine as vacation-friendly as well as business-friendly, and building a skilled workforce remain critical issues, Martin said.
The average manufacturing employee of 2010 was already much more likely to have some college than the employee of 2000, and 26 percent now are more likely to hold a bachelor's degree, according to the August report.
"(In many cases), the work skills required involve critical thinking and calculation and collaboration and communication, which is very different than the old days of the production line, where it was very regimented, repetitive motions," Mills said. "That kind of underlies the whole skills-gap confusion that's been in the news: We have so many people who have been displaced from manufacturing, yet manufacturers are the ones saying they can't find people with the right skills."
It requires a new way of thinking and working, and, frequently, more schooling.
Martin said MAMe will partner with the state in the near future on a campaign to reach the public, parents, schools and students. She called the latter "future professionals."
There's the perception of the old, "dingy" factory to combat, she said, along with personal experience. Maybe mom, dad, an aunt or uncle worked in manufacturing and got laid off.
"That has a big influence on kids," Martin said.
She pointed to several programs in the works or on the horizon: The state was one of six chosen for a pilot program out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Pathways to Prosperity, which matches students and manufacturing.
"The goal is to place 100 students within the next year in jobs in the greater Portland area," then go statewide, Martin said.
A collaboration with the Maine Community College System, MAMe and the Great Bay Foundation will pay tuition for up to 14 students at Central Maine Community College in Auburn next year.
There's also a new effort, the Robotics Institute of Maine, now hiring a full-time director.
"There are just so many opportunities in so many different sectors," Martin said. "It really is an exciting time and they're not just jobs — they're careers."