Malaya Jelks, from left, Parker Pettengill and Brooklyn Brown, all Hermon High School students, are in the business leadership program through Bridge Academy Maine.

A program that started at Hermon High School nearly a decade ago that allows students to get a jump on college credits while also learning the technical skills they’ll need in a career — whether in health care, cooking, business, public safety or other fields — has since spread across the state.

Now called Bridge Academy Maine, it started in 2012 as a pilot program for about 14 Hermon High School students. They took courses at both their high school and at United Technologies Center in Bangor. At the time, they had to pay just $20 for each credit that counted toward an associate’s degree from Eastern Maine Community College.

With the backing of then-Gov. Paul LePage and funding authorized by the Legislature, the program has since expanded across the region and state, according to Brian Langley, a former state senator from Ellsworth who now heads Bridge Academy Maine, a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate the offerings between the different participating high schools, technical centers and colleges.

Roughly 150 students from communities such as Bangor, Ellsworth, Stonington, Houlton, Lewiston and Farmington now receive college credits each year through the program, which has a goal of reaching 200 students next year.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

During an event at United Technologies Center on Wednesday, Langley and members of the state’s business community argued that it will be essential for Maine to expand programs that smooth the path for kids to receive some sort of post-high school education and credentials while still in high school.

As older workers leave the state’s job market, the event was also meant to highlight a projected shortage of working-age adults with the necessary skills to fill future job openings. MaineSpark, a group that’s trying to reverse that trend, has found the state will need to add 158,000 trained, credentialed people to its workforce by 2025 to meet all the demand.

Without that investment in providing more training to Maine high schoolers, Langley said, “We’re going to be leaving a whole slew of kids outside the workforce who will have to jump from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job. They’ll be left out of the economy.”

While it can be costly for students to receive college credits after they graduate from high school, he said Bridge Academy Maine allows students to receive those credits for much less. Financial aid is available for the programs, but without it, Langley said, the total cost for two years of credits would be about $1,200 for a family.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Besides lessening the total time students must spend in college, it also gives them the opportunity to figure out what fields interest them without forcing them to spend a fortune on each credit, according to Langley.

Some Hermon High School students also came to the event on Wednesday to speak about their experiences with Bridge Academy Maine.

Parker Pettengill, a senior, said that he initially wanted to study automobile repair when he started the program so that he could save on the costs of repairing cars, but he quickly decided that it would be more practical to enter the business leadership program. Now, once he graduates, he plans to attend EMCC and complete degrees in HVAC and plumbing.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Another senior, Malaya Jelks, said she originally was interested in working as an accountant when she entered the two-year business leadership program during her junior year. But after doing a job shadow at a bridal boutique in Bangor, she decided she was more interested in the marketing side of business.

For her, the greatest advantage of the program has been the expected savings on her college tuition. She is heading to Husson University next year and looks forward to receiving a degree in less than four years.