May 21, 2018
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Maine needs an educated, not just trained, work force

By Carol Lewandowski, Special to the BDN

Gov. Paul LePage needs better information about the state of education in Maine. Recent news reports and editorials indicate confusion over training vs. education, the shifting nature of trades, the purpose of a liberal studies program and the notion that anyone not helping the state of Maine in the woods, on the farm or on the sea is a traitor.

First, the purpose of training is to provide immediate results on the job while the purpose of education is to provide long-term results not only on the job but in personal and public life. LePage got this backwards when he said, “We need to make sure that kids have skill sets for life, not just for academics.” He assumes that “kids” need to know only job basics such as how to run a machine, as if they will spend 24 hours of every day on said machine.

As much time as we spend on the job, we commit a good portion of our lives to family, hobbies and communities. That passion and connection cannot be taught in a trades class but in a general education environment that includes academic courses in math (balance the household budget), writing (set up a letter of complaint so you get money back on a product or pen a winning resume and cover letter), reading (understand the real message behind a text), science (figure out why your canned tomatoes went black), interpersonal communication (raise funds for a community project) and social sciences (learn how government works and get involved in politics).

Second, employers (several owning machining facilities) indicated they had jobs, but not the “exact” applicants they desired. This is interesting because Eastern Maine Community College had to close its machine tool-fabrication program for lack of enrollment. College representatives met with companies but got no support for the program, and enrollment dropped; hence, the death of a once-popular college program.

Third, I’ve heard disparaging remarks about “useless” liberal studies programs. Of course, liberal studies programs help undecided students test the waters of college, but the program meets another need: We have highly competitive programs in nursing, medical radiography and welding, to name a few, with limited capacity. If a program has 25 seats but gets 200 applicants, what happens to the 175 students that don’t make it? In the past, they left college and could not collect financial aid since they were not matriculated into a program, so the community college system created the liberal studies program to be a holding pen for students who want to continue academics and reapply to a program.

Yes, people graduate with a two-year degree in liberal studies, but it is not their final degree; they eventually gain entry into those “trade” based programs, they move on to another college or they leave school, possibly to flip burgers, but not always.

Last, if we all follow LePage’s career advice (the woods, the farm, the sea), Maine would lose its local restaurants, shops, artisans, athletics, clinics, everything. Actually, if Mainers went into those areas and those areas alone just to regain the state’s labor history, we would lose a precious future: all of those restaurants, shops, studios, clinics, would be fair game for huge outside corporations, at which point Maine would look just like every other state.

A “trained” population is very different from an “educated” one. The future of Maine calls for the latter.

Carol Lewandowski is head of the English Department at Eastern Maine Community College.

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