LEWISTON — Six years after Christopher Martineau completed his Lewiston Regional Technical Center program, he’s earning a salary far above Maine’s median.

He got his job after earning a four-year degree. He keeps it by working long hours in sometimes grueling conditions.

“Right now I’m in Pennsylvania, drilling for gas,” Martineau, 23, said Thursday. He has gone as long as 55 days without a day off. Some days he’s covered in oil, working in 12-degree weather.

But he likes his work. A field engineer for a global oil field services company, his job is to take information from geologists and figure out where to turn the drill to find natural gas or oil.

He graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in construction management. Before that, he graduated from Oak Hill High School and studied at Lewiston Regional Technical Center.

Going to LRTC “is how I decided what I wanted to do in college,” Martineau said. “It gives you real-world skills.”

Kim Tuttle, 27, also attended LRTC, went on to get a four-year and a master’s degree in architecture. Today she lives in Camden and earns $45,000 a year designing high-end houses in Boothbay.

Her job as an architectural designer includes everything from developing blueprints to designing cabinet doors. She enjoys her job and marvels at the “unbelievable craftsmen here.” Taking technical courses in high school “is the best thing I ever did,” she said. “It introduced me to a field I was interested in.”

Expanded programs would build jobs

One of Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s educational goals is to boost technical education at Maine high schools and community colleges.

Key details, such as how much more or less LePage would spend on education, aren’t yet fully developed, said Stephen Bowen, LePage’s senior policy analyst.

But expanding technical education would mean expanding jobs, even in a tough economy, officials say.

“I have waiting lists in a number of programs, from automotive to nursing to culinary arts to childhood education,” LRTC Director Robert Callahan said.

“A number of our students go right to work,” Callahan said. “Our culinary arts program is a great example. Restaurants in town are very eager to have our students come aboard.”

Many of his students continue with post-secondary education.

“Five years out, 75 percent of our students are working in their field,” Callahan said. “We’re very pleased.”

Statewide, some technical programs have no waiting lists. Others do, especially in automotive, nursing and health, welding and culinary arts, according to the Career and Technical Education Division of the Maine Department of Education.

LRTC, a two-year program at Lewiston High School, has 700 students from six high schools: Lewiston, Edward Little in Auburn, Poland, Lisbon, Leavitt in Turner and Oak Hill in Wales. If he had more room and more instructors, Callahan estimated he could take another 200 students.

“Last year alone, we had 80 students apply for our automotive program,” he said. “I had 32 seats.” When he has to turn students away, “it really is heartbreaking.”

Classes can’t get too big, Callahan said. Students need supervision because they are doing real work.

“In our electrical program, students work under a master electrician,” he said. “They’re out on job sites.”

The same is true for other programs. When automotive students repair brakes, “you want to feel confident” the work is done right.

College credit in high school

At a time when experts are calling for teaching changes to get more students engaged, technical education delivers the style being recommended, Callahan said.

“It’s hands-on, lively and challenging,” he said.

And, technical centers serving Maine high schools have agreements with local colleges that allow students to get college credits in high school.

LRTC has partnerships with Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Husson University in Bangor and Thomas College in Waterville.

For example, CMCC accepts up to six credits in automotive, six for culinary arts, up to nine in computer networking. Husson University allows up to six credits in criminal justice, while the University of Southern Maine allows three credits in accounting. LRTC is talking with more colleges and universities, including USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College, to expand partnerships, Callahan said.

Students can be savvy education consumers, and often decide which college to go to after comparing the time and cost benefits, Callahan said.

Tech ed helps guide

Martin Ford V, 17, a Lewiston High School senior at LRTC, plans to attend CMCC to continue studying automotives and become a technician. He said he’ll get six college credits from the courses he’s taking in high school.

“I love working on cars,” Ford said. He and Oak Hill student Nate Rolston, also 17, have pulled a transmission out of a Honda minivan. They can do brakes, tires, wheels, alignments and computer diagnostics. Attending CMCC will allow Ford to continue working at Advanced Auto Parts “and save my money,” he said.

Rolston plans to attend the Universal Technical Institute in Massachusetts. Afterward, he’ll be a certified technician in repairing cars, heavy equipment and diesel engines. Repairing diesel engines is especially in demand, LRTC Assistant Director Peter Gagnon said.

Depending on where they work, automotive technicians can earn between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, Gagnon said.

High school seniors Curtis Robinson and Amanda Turner study architecture at LRTC. They’ve been accepted at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

Both plan to get master’s degrees in architecture. At age 17, both know how to draw blueprints for a ranch-style building.

Technical education is a good stepping stone, Robinson said.

“It helps people get an idea what they want to do,” she said. “They can test it out so they don’t waste time in college.”

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