Michael W. Aube

Building a competitive, skilled work force

Posted May 17, 2012, at 5:04 p.m.
Last modified May 18, 2012, at 7:33 a.m.

Last Saturday, my wife and I decided to spend some time in the Rockland-Camden area. We visited the Farnsworth Museum, did a little shopping and enjoyed lunch at a downtown establishment. The arts, locally owned shops and bistros are certainly an economic boon for the area. Most of the people we saw were, as we say in Maine, “from away,” and they were spending money and enjoying themselves, which are critical to the sustainability of the arts- and tourism-based economy of the region.

During our lunch, we witnessed a young man come to inquire about potential job openings at the restaurant. He was told that while there weren’t any positions available immediately, there may be one in the near future. The job seeker thanked the manager and headed for the door. That’s when the proprietor called him back to ask for his name and phone number in order to reach him if an opening became available.

As we watched this play out, we wondered how many young people are looking for entry-level employment and how they are going about finding those types of jobs. What are the challenges? What skills do they need when they are just starting out?

It was clear that the young man looking for a job didn’t do much planning. He was wearing jeans with holes in them and a T-shirt that needed ironing and looked like it may have been worn for several days. He also had neglected to “tame” a haircut that might not be considered an appropriate fit for a family restaurant. While these may seem like unimportant details to someone, especially younger people, when looking for a job, the impression their appearance leaves more often than not makes the difference.

This is the season when high school and college commencements take place. It’s the time when our young, ambitious and academically prepared youths begin their careers.

Are they prepared for today’s job market and the challenges that come with first finding a job and then succeeding at it? Are they ready to enter a world that is global in context as well as in reality? Are they ready to compete?

Many youths are leaving their place of study with greater knowledge, but also with great debt that will need to be repaid with money they earn at those first jobs. They are entering the working world academically prepared and financially saddled, but are they ready to work? Are they “work ready”?

WorkReady is a term and program used to describe someone who has not just the skills to do a job, but also the expertise to better market themselves to get the job. As the job market becomes more and more competitive, grasping the concepts of being WorkReady is becoming increasingly important.

What distinguishes an applicant for full-time employment from all of the others competing for that same position? What makes a young person looking for meaningful employment with a paycheck to pay the bills different from the others with the same aspiration?

The so-called “Maine skills gap” is a reality. Maine needs skilled workers for new economic opportunities. There are models to emulate. To be successful, the public and private sectors must make commitments to invest in work force systems that foster collaboration among businesses, community colleges, K-12 and adult education. The private sector also must issue a pledge to provide their workers with opportunities for continuous improvement of skills and professional development.

This commitment, coupled with a genuine economic development sector-based strategy, can bring success and economic prosperity to the region or state. Many states and regions around the nation have developed this type of collaborative strategy. They reject a one-size-fits-all, centralized system. Instead, the region’s economic sectors, business community and educational institutions are working together to ensure not only a continuous supply of skilled workers, but also applicants who are work ready and know how to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corp. in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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