May 26, 2018
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Skills gap undermines recovery in Maine

By John Bragg and Andy Hamilton, Special to the BDN

Even while unemployment rates remain stubbornly high in Maine and nationwide, many of our companies are struggling to find employees qualified to fill open jobs. In some cases, these jobs pay well and include benefits — yet employers still can’t fill them.

This skills gap is undermining our ability to recover fully from the last recession. How can we grow jobs here if we don’t have workers trained and ready for the jobs businesses are offering?

Contributing to this problem is the fact that about 40 percent of Maine’s recent high school graduates are not going on to college this fall. So thousands of Maine’s next generation of workers are attempting to enter our work force less prepared to step into the high paying, rewarding and good jobs that they all want. And our businesses are left with an applicant field lacking in skills and experience.

This is a problem all across our nation. Recent business surveys show that entry-level employees are often deficient not only in the “hard skills” — such as math, reading and writing — but also in the soft skills, such as communicating and collaborating well and thinking critically.

Many employers view these soft skills as the most important skills workers can have. A report by the national business leaders group, America’s Edge, tells us that when responding to a survey on new hires, employers state that almost 70 percent of high school graduates whom they have hired are lacking in professionalism.

Our nation is trending in the wrong direction. As recently as 1995, the U.S. was tied for first in college gradation rates. In 2008, the U.S. dropped to 14th among the 26 industrialized nations reporting data. And our high school graduation rates continue to decline; we now rank 18th of 25 industrialized countries.

These dismal statistics and downward trends demand that we act. For American businesses to close the skills gap and regain their competitive edge, we must create a labor pool prepared to succeed in the work force. And one of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to start early.

Rigorous studies of quality early learning programs confirm that these programs can lead to higher achievement in math and reading, but also development of the soft skills that employers value.

Between the ages of birth to five, kids learn to speak and understand language and develop problem solving abilities, social skills and pre-academic skills. These basic skills are the foundation for higher brain function and all academic skills that will follow, allowing youngsters to excel in school and later in their adult careers.

Children who participated in the Child-Parent Center program were over 30 percent more likely than their nonparticipating peers to hold a job considered semiskilled or higher and 30 percent more likely to have attended a four-year college. According to a long-term study following children who attended another high-quality early learning program, kids enrolled in the program were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school than similar children who did not participate.

From a cost-benefit analysis, investing in quality early learning offers significant returns. In the short term, the America’s Edge report found that investing in quality early learning provides a surprisingly big boost to Maine’s economy, generating more in local sales than investments in any other economic sector, including construction, transportation and even the farming, forest, fishing and hunting sector.

And from a long-term perspective, high-quality early learning programs can save as much as $16 for every $1 invested because children who participate in these programs grow up to become better-educated and more productive workers, with far less need for remedial education or involvement in crime.

We have the opportunity now to strengthen businesses, give a booster shot to our economy and ensure a pipeline of skilled workers for the future.

Congress, through the appropriations process, can protect access to early care and education for Maine’s children through funding for Head Start-Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant. In addition, continued funding for the Early Learning Challenge program could help states like Maine access resources to improve the quality of early care and education programs.

Congress will be working through the appropriations process for the coming fiscal year when members return after the August recess.

Here in Maine the governor and legislators can embrace the expansion of quality public Pre-K as envisioned in the Prepare Maine initiative that they will take up again in January.

As members of business and professional firms, we urge all our Maine policymakers to prioritize these investments. It’s not just good for our children. It is also good for business.

John Bragg is president of N. H. Bragg & Sons, an industrial supply company. Andy Hamilton is a partner in the Bangor-based law firm Eaton Peabody.

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