Teaching New Tricks

Posted Sept. 23, 2010, at 6:48 p.m.

Among the many compelling implications in a new report, “An Educated Workforce for a 21st Century Economy,” is that the state is missing out on a valuable opportunity by failing to encourage its adult workers to pursue post-secondary education. The report, published by the Maine Compact for Higher Education, the Mitchell Institute and the Maine Community Foundation, focuses on the strong connection between an educated population and economic prosperity. It suggests four key areas on which the new state government can focus to increase the percentage of those attaining post-secondary degrees, and it sets as a goal 40,000 more degrees by 2020 than current projections suggest.

The report clearly articulates the barriers that now exist for high school students and young adults and, no doubt, this is where most policy initiatives will focus. But one corner of the bigger picture could yield dramatic results. The target could be adults currently in the work force, say between the ages of 35 and 50, who have not set foot in a classroom since leaving high school.

A two-pronged attack must be used to get this demographic to begin pursuing formal education.

The first is persuading workers that the investment of time and money is worth it. The pay-offs are several. Those who complete even one community college course will be viewed differently by their employers — as someone willing to learn new things, as someone willing to leave their comfort zone and as someone with new skills. Much of what post-secondary education imparts is learning how to learn, so if an employer creates a new position that required training, this employee would rise to the top as a candidate. A 40-year-old mother taking community college courses also sets a powerful example for her children, yet another payoff.

The second prong is to persuade employers to invest in their workers’ continuing education. The owner of a hotel might hesitate to spend money so an assistant manager can earn a liberal arts degree. But employers are realizing that an educated employee is a better employee, because he or she will bring a broader worldview, sharper intelligence and better problem solving and communication skills to the job. And it makes sense to educate the employee already screened, hired and acclimated to the business, rather than looking for a better-educated replacement.

Employers do risk losing that better-educated employee to another job, which might make them think twice about offering tuition aid. But if more businesses were committed to helping workers get a higher education, it would help create a rising tide for all of Maine. One way to spur such further education could be to offer matching tax credits for both employer and employee upon successful completion of course work.

There are many fronts on which the state must fight to upgrade its work force. None should be overlooked, including the 35- to 50-year-old workers.

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