Beau Sibley was driving home from his camp in Lee last October when he learned the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport would close. The closure would leave 575 workers jobless — including him.

“I heard it on the radio. I could not believe it,” said Sibley, who is 49 years old.

This was not a layoff, with the implied possibility of rehire once the economy picked up. The mill was closing. The equipment would be sold, the buildings scrapped. Papermaking in Bucksport was over. Period.

Sibley, who lives in Brewer, had worked at the mill for 21 years. He spent most of that time in the pulp-making process, feeding 4-foot softwood logs into a grinder. He was good at his job, but with Maine’s papermaking economy in decline, he didn’t expect his skillset would be in great demand.

“I didn’t panic,” he said, “but I thought, ‘My life is going to be changing real soon.’”

He was right. Now, a year after the Verso closure was announced, he’s a full-time student in the culinary arts program at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor. His expenses — tuition, books, materials and a modest living allowance — are being paid by federal retraining programs managed through the Maine Department of Labor. Classes began at the end of August. If all goes as planned, he’ll graduate with an associate degree in May 2017.

Already, he has worked his way through a module on soups and sauces and another section on cooking meats — braising, searing and roasting. He’s tackled dishes from Osso Bucco to Duck a l’Orange.

“This is something completely different for me,” he said. “I liked rolling a hot dog in a frying pan with my grandfather when I was 4 years old. I thought it was fun to eat food you made yourself, but I never worked in a professional kitchen before.”

He also doesn’t have an academic background. This is Sibley’s first foray into higher education. Like many Mainers, he started millwork shortly after high school, anticipating it would provide secure employment for all his working years.

But now, he reports, he’s taking to the campus environment. Even though he sometimes finds the academic work stressful, he’s enjoying the adventure of learning new skills, interacting with his instructors and getting to know classmates of all ages.

He looks forward to lining up a summer internship — required of all students in the program — perhaps at a high-end restaurant on the coast or close to his camp in Lee.

“Someplace where there’s really fine dining,” he said.

He hasn’t looked too far into the future, because he is still exploring his own interests. But he is confident he’ll find an interesting and creative cooking job when he graduates.

“I know I’ll have to start at the bottom and work up,” he said.

A special challenge for older workers

Sibley is one of about 1,600 recently displaced millworkers in Maine, many of whom are older but not yet ready for retirement. According to the Maine Department of Labor, of the 575 workers who lost their jobs at the Bucksport mill last year, about 350 — more than 60 percent — were 50 or older. In East Millinocket, about 65 percent of the 260 workers displaced by the Great Northern Paper closure in 2014 were 50 or older, and about half the approximately 200 Expera workers idled in Old Town this year had passed the half-century mark.

Recent layoffs at mills in Lincoln, Jay and Rumford have also hit older workers hard, according to Ed Upham, manager of the Maine Career Center in Bangor, which serves Piscataquis, Penobscot and Hancock counties.

Many older workers started working in the mills shortly after high school, Upham said, and were virtually guaranteed a solid, middle-class wage in a community where making paper has been a way of life for generations.

“When you lose a job like that, it’s almost like losing a family member,” he said.

But with the support of the Department of Labor and a group of federal jobs retraining programs, many of Maine’s displaced mill workers, including older workers, are developing new job skills.

Anecdotal reports from the Bangor CareerCenter indicate there are 81 displaced workers from the Bucksport mill in active retraining, along with 22 from the layoffs in Lincoln and 64 from the closure of the East Millinocket mill. The department does not track their ages.

The Maine Career Centers connect qualified workers with federal retraining programs such as Trade Adjustment Assistance, Reemployment Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Readjustment Assistance. As their names imply, these three programs bring slightly different tools and strategies to the goal of retraining and re-employing workers who have lost their jobs because of competition from foreign imports, as is the case with most Maine papermaking jobs.

Workers who choose to prepare for new careers can have their schooling or training paid for, including tuition, books and other expenses. Their unemployment benefits may be extended while they complete their education so they don’t have to juggle school and work. Workers over 50 may qualify for a temporary wage subsidy that helps bridge the difference between what they earned at their previous job and what they earn as an entry-level employee in a new field. And, if their new job skills land them a position that requires them to move, they may qualify for a relocation allowance, Upham said.

Popular retraining options for former millworkers include health fields, Ed Upham said, as well as culinary arts, hospitality management, building trades, mechanics, boat building, welding and computer sciences. Two-year degree programs and one-year certifications at Maine’s community colleges are the most accessible options, he said, but some programs are also available through the state’s technical high schools and the University of Maine System.

Upham said older workers face unique challenges when they are displaced. While younger workers have more time to start a new career and may be open to relocating, he said, older workers are often less willing to start over in a new field at lower pay, less confident of their ability to learn a new skill set and less willing to relocate from a community where their families may have lived for several generations.

A chance to pursue a dream

Relocating turns out to be an attractive option for Tony Gomme, 53, of Orrington. He had worked at the Bucksport mill since 1984, moving wood chips into the pulping process and as heavy equipment trainer.

He liked his job fine and would not have moved on if the mill hadn’t closed. “I rode it ’til the wheels fell off the wagon,” he said cheerfully, but he leapt at the opportunity to pursue his lifelong passion for cooking.

“I was always dabbling in it, even when I was working at the mill,” he said. “I’ve always wanted a cooking degree.”

Like Sibley, Gomme expects to graduate in 2017. He plans to move away from the long Maine winters — North Carolina, perhaps — and open a bed and breakfast, a longtime dream.

“I want to cook up a big country breakfast that brings people together,” he said. He may even make the move before finishing the program at EMCC, if his federal funding will transfer to another location.

He’ll be leaving behind deep Maine roots and some important family members. “It’s going to be rough to leave,” he acknowledged. “But my rule of thumb is this: The only person in your life who can make you happy is yourself.”

Gomme said older workers who enter retraining at the community colleges can expect to find a lot of support from other students. “We were all really nervous about being the old fogeys in our classes,” he said. “But EMCC is very laid back and easy-going, and the students are very friendly.”

More importantly, for workers like Sibley and Gomme, this is a positive second act.

“There is life after the mill,” Gomme said. “Of course, I’m sad I lost my job, but I’m still young enough to pursue the career I always wanted. This really kind of gave me my youth back.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.