SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Labor economist John Dorrer can unleash a flurry of statistics that link college degrees with economic growth, and highlight a growing skills gap.
For instance, 60 percent of jobs in the United States require at least an associate degree, but only 40 percent of Americans obtain a degree by the age of 27.
In Maine, in 1990, 52.2 percent of the work force had a high school degree or less; 26.9 percent had some college or an associate degree and 20.9 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In 2009, only 36.9 percent had a high school degree or less, 33.7 had some college or an associate degree and 29.4 percent had a more advanced degree.
“Skills play a larger role in this economy — that’s true in the nation, that’s true in Maine,” said Dorrer.
That flip-flop is continuing, and points to a simple fact, said Dorrer: Higher education is critical to sustain Maine’s economy. More and more companies are demanding educated, skilled workers, and not enough Mainers have what is needed.
“We stand at an unprecedented time. If we do not succeed at rethinking, retooling and rebuilding our human capital infrastructure, I shudder to think what we’re going to be left with,” said Dorrer, a longtime economist with the state Department of Labor who is now the program director for Jobs for the Future. “We’re spending precious too little time looking at the kinds of policies we need in the future.”
Dorrer spoke Thursday at the annual Maine Symposium on Higher Education, held by the Maine Compact for Higher Education, a group composed of education, government and community and business leaders working to raise educational attainment in Maine.
The event, which was held at Unum, drew about 150 people. Most of the day was spent looking at the skills gap in Maine — a topic that has been in the news over the past month or so, starting with a session held by Gov. Paul LePage with business people to understand what work force needs aren’t being met.
LePage also attended Thursday’s event, speaking about needs in K-12 education and his plan to institute a fifth year of high school that would allow students to take college-level courses.
He spoke about the need to renew emphasis on paths to trades for students, and also said schools need to stop the “annual promotion” of students from one grade to the next, regardless of their academic achievements.
“It’s not a matter of time, it’s not a matter of age; it’s a matter of conquering the standards that are put before you,” he said.
Dorrer said the entire education system needed to be viewed as a supply chain for the state’s economy, and should be managed as such. And, he stressed, the state tends to focus too much on the economy of the past, and not the needs of the future.
At one point he put a picture up of a manufacturing floor in Maine, with women assembling parts of a machine at a long table.
“The nostalgia for Maine’s labor force comes out of this picture. We did it extraordinarily well in this state,” he said. “It’s given us the sometimes too-smug attitude that our labor force is among the most productive in the world.”
The factory culture, strong industrial discipline and high-output were hallmarks of Maine’s labor force, he said. But, he added, he’s not sure it applies to the workplace of today, which requires different kinds of organization to work, different skills.
But Maine has changed its economy before. When it shifted from agrarian to industrial, and then from industrial to offices, he said.
“We’ve done it before, we’ve done it frequently, and we’ve got to do it again,” said Dorrer.
Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, was the keynote speaker for the event. Lumina supports the goal of getting 60 percent of Americans to hold “high quality college degrees and credentials” by 2020.
“To prosper — even to survive — in the global economy, we need many more college graduates, here in the cities and towns of Maine, and all across this country,” said Merisotis.
In Maine, he noted, 37 percent of the adults across the state have such degrees. The national average is about 38 or 39 percent, he said. South Korea last year increased degree attainment by five percentage points, he said, hitting 63 percent.
Merisotis made a number of recommendations to move attainment up in Maine, including a number of steps for businesses.
He suggested that businesses offer generous, accessible tuition-reimbursement plans.
Companies should help workers plan their education, and also make space available for local colleges to offer on-site classes.
“Finally, get serious and go public with your education-friendly stance by upgrading your hiring standards,” he said. “Make some level of post-secondary education or training mandatory for new employees, and keep the incentives for upgrading skills as basic benefits.”
The heads of Maine’s two public college systems — Chancellor Richard Pattenaude of the University of Maine System and John Fitzsimmons, president of the Community College System — also spoke. While they related about their efforts to meet work force demands, they also noted that teaching core skills such as critical thinking and flexibility went far in developing the future economy.
It was important to have strong core programs with flexibility to deal with current demands, such as producing students with the latest computer programming skill, said Pattenaude.
But that skill will become obsolete soon, to be replaced by another, he added.
“I love to think of education as a supertanker — it’s heading in the right direction, you have to do some steering, but it isn’t to be spun on its head,” Fitzsimmons said outside of the session. “If you do so, you endanger your future. A lot of these economic trends are short term and will be over, and then you find yourself making catastrophic mistakes with your most important resource, your people and their education.”