COLUMN

Problem with Cliff Clavin: Bar stool solutions fail to address complexity of Maine’s growing skills gap

Posted Nov. 04, 2011, at 2:21 p.m.

For well over a decade, television audiences knew John Ratzenberger as Cliff Clavin on the long-running television sitcom “Cheers.” The bar’s resident know-it-all and loyal sidekick to Norm, Cliff was famous for his “ plausible half-truths, irrelevant trivia and ignorant misinformation,” as his official bio notes.

Listening to Cliffy’s keynote address at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner last week in Bangor, I quickly realized the “Cheers” character required little professional exertion for Mr. Ratzenberger.

To hear Cliffy tell it, the manufacturing crisis in America is readily solved by letting our children play more outside, build tree houses and fix their bikes, and ensuring only the most deserving Little Leaguers receive trophies.

While Cliffy appropriately diagnosed a legitimate problem — a lack of skilled workers to fill Maine and national vacancies in critical economic sectors — his bar stool solutions fail to recognize or address the complexity of the issue.

Southern Maine Community College recently examined 26,000 growth jobs within Maine and predicted that more than 4,000 positions within information technology, precision production, transportation, construction, hospitality and science and technology are likely to go unfilled by 2018 due to a lack of adequately educated and trained workers.

Maine employers in these sectors already are feeling the acute effects of our increasingly unprepared, undereducated and unskilled work force. Regrettably, Mr. Ratzenberger’s prescriptions are unlikely to substantively change this dynamic in the short or long term.

A more thoughtful, collaborative and concerted effort is required to prepare Mainers to compete for existing and future high-growth, skilled employment opportunities.

The skills gap crisis is already on the policy radar screens of Maine businesses, educators, legislators, the governor, local chambers of commerce and nonprofits. Just last month, the Maine Compact for Higher Education hosted a symposium at UNUM titled, “Maine’s Economic Imperative: To Dramatically Increase the Education and Skill Level of Maine’s Current and Future Workforce.” Cliffy would have done well to attend and listen.

This problem is complex and there are no simple fixes. As a start, we must continue to tear down the traditional silos in which we toil: the classroom, the board room and the legislative committee room. A “solution” born in any one silo will undoubtedly fail to meet the needs of the others.

Second, our postsecondary educational institutions, whether community colleges or the university system, must move quickly to retool their offerings to prepare students to meet the existing and anticipated needs of Maine’s job creators.

This may require dramatic changes within academic institutions largely committed to the systems, traditions and compartmentalization of the existing pedagogical program. For example, some have suggested Maine consider pioneering a new academic credential to replace the associate degree with one that is focused on learning outcomes and competencies developed in partnership with business leaders within a particular industry sector. That would require a sea change from our current approach.

Third, with scant resources and growing demand, we cannot expect our public education institutions to succeed independently in this re-engineering. Business must be an active partner in helping develop and graduate workers with the skills to meet their needs.

Beginning in high school, employers can offer job shadow, internship, part-time and summer employment opportunities that provide meaningful experiences beyond the classroom. These programs help students understand the direct and important connection between educational attainment and future employment.

Businesses also must take responsibility for the development of their existing work force by providing opportunities to gain new skills through in-house training, as well as encouraging and funding the pursuit of advanced certificates and specialized degrees.

Finally, the governor and legislators also have a critical role to play. They must provide clear leadership by building broad consensus around the re-engineering of the educational program, setting aggressive and attainable goals, establishing roles for stakeholders and laying out a clear path forward. Absent this leadership, Maine will pay a terrible human and economic price for its complacency.

Legislators and the governor also must focus limited state resources on low-hanging fruit. By 2018, Maine is expected to add 15,000 new jobs requiring post-secondary education. Currently there are 160,000 Mainers with some college education but no degree. Many are older, motivated to re-enter higher education and find new employment but lack the required skills.

We must help them prepare for the jobs of the future with intensive retraining programs tied to specific employment opportunities and specific employers.

If Maine is unable to close the skills gap, thousands of high-quality, good-paying jobs will go elsewhere. Our leaders in business, academia and government must resist simplistic Cliff Clavin-style solutions as well as the temptation to nibble around the edges of reform. Nothing short of the economic vitality of our state and its residents are at stake.

Michael J. Cuzzi is a senior vice president with VOX Global, a public affairs and strategic communications firm located in Portland.

Editor’s note: The Bangor Daily News welcomes submissions for business columns. They should be 650-850 words, and should be unique to the BDN and pertinent to the Maine business community. Columns, a head and shoulder shot and a short bio can be sent to business@bangordailynews.com.

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