Computer tool reveals gap between Maine employment opportunities and education

Posted Feb. 06, 2011, at 7:15 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Labor has a new computer tool that will enable it to match worker skills with job openings across the state, but it also shows the huge gap between the skills of Mainers and the skills needed for particular jobs and where those jobs are located.

“There is a mismatch between where the jobs are and the skills of our workers,” said acting Labor Commissioner John Dorrer in an interview. “This program highlights what we knew was going on.”

Using the new program, Dorrer found more than 3,000 unemployed workers getting unemployment benefits who had the job skills being sought for just 300 jobs statewide.

“We had about 4,500 health care professional and technical occupations posted on the Internet with about 600 workers on file with those kinds of skill sets,” he said. “It is a dramatic mismatch.”

Dorrer said the mismatch between job opening and worker skills is not new, but the computer tool shows it based on actual job openings, not projections. He said the analysis also indicates it is becoming more difficult to provide the new skills a worker may need to find a job after losing a job.

“The skills needed often take longer to obtain than the duration of a person’s unemployment benefits,” he said. “We need to look at how we are going to provide the training and education needed for the new jobs that are out there, many waiting to be filled.”

Dorrer said many jobs demand significant retraining or a college degree in a new area for workers. He said that while workers need to invest in themselves, government needs to help and public colleges and universities need to provide opportunities that are not now available.

“I think he is right on target,” said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, co-chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. “That might be the greatest sort of educational and cultural challenge that we face, not just in Maine, but in the nation.”

He said it is not only higher education that must face the challenge. He said elementary and secondary education needs to make sure it is graduating students ready to get the additional training or degree they need to meet the demand.

“We are talking about our economic future,” he said.

University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude said the university is working with the community colleges and the Department of Labor to identify what new programs are needed and what existing programs need expanding. He said tough decisions already are being made over termination of academic programs that no longer attract enough students to warrant their cost.

“We have created the 12-5 rule that is directly aimed at this,” he said. Any course with fewer than a dozen students is reviewed to see whether it is needed, and any program that graduates fewer than five students a year is reviewed to see whether it is necessary. He said more than $1 million has been saved in the first round of reviews.

“We now have on the chopping block, if you will, a half-dozen programs that do not meet the minimum standards,” Pattenaude said. He said the university is determined to meet the needs for higher-education programs the state will need in the future.

Pattenaude said the data being developed by the Department of Labor not only will provide real-time information for employers, they also will help better plan for the work force needs of the future by the university. He said both five-year and 10-year projections of work force needs would help plan new programs at the seven campuses and also determine which existing programs need to expand.

Dorrer said the data also will help employers plan, but Chris Hall, vice president of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, said the availability of such detailed data will by itself help to stimulate economic recovery and lower the unemployment rate.

The computer program was bought with federal grant funds and will cost an annual fee of $27,000. The software is still being tested, but Dorrer believes it will be online for employers to use this spring, before he retires from the Department of Labor.

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