CONTRIBUTORS

Businesses, educators must work together to close Maine’s ‘skills gap’

Posted Sept. 27, 2011, at 5:43 p.m.

The recent Blaine House jobs summit reaffirmed the urgency of tackling Maine’s “skills gap.” There are not enough skilled workers available to fill job openings. With more than 50,000 Mainers unemployed and an additional 50,000 underemployed, it is imperative to help many of these Mainers secure the education and training needed for better jobs and to become stronger participants in Maine’s economy.

Fortunately, solutions exist. Both the public and the private sectors must re-evaluate their commitment to invest in much-needed work force improvement. Improved collaboration among business, community colleges and adult education can greatly improve access to postsecondary education and training for adult workers.

Organizations such as the Maine Center for Economic Policy and Maine Compact for Higher Education have called attention to the looming skills gap for some time. The facts are clear. A 2010 Georgetown University study predicted that between 2008 and 2018, Maine’s economy will add approximately 15,000 new jobs requiring postsecondary education while jobs for high school graduates and dropouts will grow only by 2,200.

Meanwhile, among Maine adults age 25-54, one in three — more than 181,000 of Maine’s work force — holds only a high school diploma or equivalent without any postsecondary credentials.

Maine College Transitions, the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program and similar programs have successfully made a career-building degree or certificate more accessible to more Maine adults. More timely support for these programs can make a difference.

Established within Maine Adult Education in 2006, Maine College Transitions’ 22 programs now serve about 1,300 students annually in 40 communities statewide. The program offers remedial courses, career counseling, computer and lab technology training, self-management skills training, and college experience through collaboration with community colleges and state universities.

Over 70 percent of the program’s enrollees score higher in college placement tests and need less remedial education, and most of its graduates go to college.

The Competitive Skills Scholarship Program is another successful initiative. Started in 2008 with bipartisan support, it invests a portion of the unemployment insurance funds in work force development. Displaced, unemployed and low-wage workers can apply for financial assistance to return to school and earn a two-year or four-year college degree. Projected earnings from their targeted occupations will more than double pre-enrollment wages.

During the program’s two-week application period in 2009, 750 people applied for the 100 openings available at the time. With potential funding for programs such as this in the Americans Jobs Act, we urge Maine legislators to support the president’s bill.

State models point to the importance of business champions who understand the value of adult education in retooling the work force. A two-way working relationship between business and education to coordinate the demand side of businesses with the supply side of education is key.

Ready Indiana, an employer-led work force development program, supports full-time state Chamber of Commerce staff to help employers navigate the adult education network. Minnesota’s career pathway program, FastTRAC, benefits from local employers who help with facility tours, job presentations and hiring interviews.

As Maine Adult Ed builds Career Pathway programs that connect low-skilled adults to high-demand occupations in growing industrial sectors, it is a perfect opportunity for Maine businesses to come on board. Companies and professionals can contribute by engaging in course development, instructional support and equipment upgrades, offering internships or apprenticeships, and providing employee education incentives.

Businesses cannot do it alone. Adult education and community colleges are an integral part of the conversation. A proven approach in other states is to appoint a lead staff or task force to coordinate the business sector with adult ed, colleges and social service agencies. Perhaps it’s time for Maine to follow this model.

Better education for adult workers is a good investment. With roots here, they are unlikely to leave. But too often, family demands, parental responsibilities, and financial challenges delay or thwart their continued education plans. Among Maine families with at least one employed adult, about 29 percent are not self-sufficient, earning less than $43,908 for a family of four. Earned income tax credits, affordable health care and child care and financial aid are all essential to encourage working adults go back to college and succeed.

By working together and making critical, targeted investments, we can move more Mainers to higher-skilled and better-paid jobs. We will all win: businesses, education, working families and a stronger Maine economy.

Connie Zhu is the policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

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