grant.19 “That is a very powerful program, and we are investing very heavily in it,” she said.
Ms. Mills explained that she first became involved in cluster strategy in 2005, when the Brunswick Naval Air Station, close to where she lived in Maine, landed on the base closure list. “We knew we were going to lose some jobs,” she said. Ms. Mills recalled that she received a call from Maine’s governor, who said, “Karen, you know about small innovative businesses. You better get some here.”
At the time, the U.S. Department of Labor had just come out with WIRED grants20 for worker re-training, Ms. Mills said. A team looked around for industries where Maine had unique strengths. It identified boat-building, an industry in which the state had a 400-year-old tradition. “We have all of these independent small-business people building boats in Maine. Who would think they would ever cluster together?” Ms. Mills said. Another asset is the University of Maine’s cutting-edge research in wood composite materials. These composites were being used to build hulls for boats that were some of the lightest and fastest in the world.
With the help of the $15 million workforce grant, the state created the North Star Alliance, a group that leverages the expertise of local craftsmen and the new technology being developed in the area. The state built a training center for composite technologies. Composites are applied in layers and infused with resins, so they require strong technical labor. “We have a lot of excellent folks going to community and vocational school in Maine who never thought of manufacturing careers in composite technologies,” Ms. Mills said. Only one-third of Maine high school students go to college, she noted. Many go into fishing and construction industries. In mid-January 2010, she added, she spoke at three high schools to persuade students to go to the composite material training center.
Five years later, the cluster is showing important progress. Maine-built boats “are selling as far away as Shanghai,” she said. At the Brunswick industrial park, there now is a cluster of companies that is supporting not only builders of boats, but also other businesses using composites.
Five to 10 of these clusters could replace the jobs lost in the textile, shoe, and pulp industries of Maine, Ms. Mills said. An initiative to establish a food cluster drew 120 people at its first meeting. “I was off and running clusters as the base for economic development,” she said.
Maine established a fund to promote cluster development. Ms. Mills asked
19 See Fred Block and Mathew R. Keller, Where Do Innovations Come From? Transformations in the U.S. National Innovation System, 1970-2006, Washington, DC: The Informational Technology & Innovation Foundation, July 2008, <http://www.itif.org/files/Where_do_innovations_come_from.pdf>.
20 Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) grants are offered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. A WIRED grant was awarded to train 1,800 workers in Maine to build boats using advanced technologies and materials.