BRUNSWICK, Maine — More than 200 high school seniors who visited Southern Maine Community College in Brunswick Wednesday were told their higher-education futures need not be uncertain thanks to a dearth of workers in the composites and engineering fields, and a low-cost training program newly located in their backyards.

Southern Maine Community College, which opened a new campus on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station last year, held its first-ever STEM conference Wednesday at the Cook’s Corner campus. STEM education, which has been heavily emphasized in Maine recently by education officials and Gov. Paul LePage, stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

James Whitten, who oversees the midcoast campus, said Wednesday’s event was organized as a way to educate students about the virtues and practicality of a community college education.

“It’s days like this when it’s all going to sink in for these students,” said Whitten. In addition to presentations about the college’s offerings, the students also began graduation preparation by ordering class rings and graduation gowns.

Composites professor Andrew Schoenberg told the students they could earn an associate’s degree at SMCC for a fraction of the cost of a university degree while having a virtual lock on a better-paying job than a lot of students with bachelor’s degrees are able to find.

“When I tell you about this program, what I’m telling you about is the perception of what is going on in this industry,” said Schoenberg. “The composites industry has been exploding.”

Schoenberg said many university students can expect a job that pays around $30,000 a year. In composites, by comparison, he said a student with an associate’s degree could earn a job with starting pay of $40,000 a year or more, based on currently advertised job openings.

SMCC opened its composites center and pre-engineering program this year for both research and training. Counting the Brunswick campus’ other programs, Whitten and others hope to expand enrollment from about 380 this semester to 3,000 students by 2015.

Some of the seniors from Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham said they were surprised that such an opportunity was available in a neighboring town — and even more surprised with Schoenberg’s calculations about their earning and employment potential. Aaron Nordwall, 17, of Harpswell said his future after high school is still undecided, but that his visit to SMCC Wednesday gave him a viable option.

“It’s definitely one of the many options I’m looking into,” said Nordwall. “This is an attractive way to get an education. Creating stuff with my hands is definitely an interest.”

Royce Gilliam, a 17-year-old Topsham resident, said he has his heart set on studying music production, but that the affordability and convenience of the community college system surprised him. He said the message was timely after Tuesday night’s presidential debate, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney talked about how 50 percent of recent college graduates are unable to find work immediately, despite being saddled with student loan debt.

“Money is always going to be an issue,” he said. “I have family members with college degrees that they worked very hard to achieve, but who aren’t working in their field.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.