May 24, 2018
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Maine must develop a workforce for the future

By Jeanne Paquette, Special to the BDN

Maine has an economy in transition. Although we have lost many manufacturing jobs over

the past 30 years, we have not lost our industrial base. The manufacturing sector as a percentage of our economy has stayed the same since 2000, and some manufacturing industries, like food and electronic products, are growing. So are industries like health care.

As our economy changes, we need to adapt our workforce training systems to meet the new demands and make the most of our training resources. This is particularly true of the federal funds Maine receives under the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA.

Upon taking office, Gov. Paul LePage reviewed this workforce training system, administered by what is now called the State Workforce Investment Board, and determined that too many funds were being spent on overhead and administrative costs. In fact, only 15 percent of the federal WIA dollars received by the state that year were used to train workers for in-demand jobs. Because of the governor’s attention, we have been able to nudge that figure higher in the past year, but it is not enough.

We hear a lot of talk lately about “workforce development.” What does that mean? It means crafting a system that is responsive to the marketplace, identifying areas of opportunity and growth and providing workers with the skills matching those opportunities. Workers laid off from an industry in decline must be connected with training for an in-demand job. We know Mainers are hard workers. But the willingness to work hard is not enough to open the door to employment in today’s businesses. Training is the key that can open the door to a new career and future success.

Therefore, our state’s training system must make the most of every penny so that we know we are creating a workforce that can sustain and attract more businesses, opening more opportunities for others. We can no longer afford a system that privileges turf wars over the skills and abilities that will generate economic growth for our families and communities.

The new structure would create consistency of opportunity and services for all citizens through statewide policy development while increasing the local and industry input that guides those policies. It will also increase business awareness of, and input into, workforce development, connecting employers with more trained workers and maximizing the efficiency of current training programs throughout the system — including local CareerCenters, service providers such as Goodwill, the community college and university systems, apprenticeships and many quality programs both public and private.

Two key elements of the proposed system involve industry partnerships and a new public-private partnership with local and regional Chambers of Commerce. The State Workforce Investment Board will connect with the Chambers in eight regions. The Chambers, existing business intermediaries with an established communication network, can help increase local business participation in the system.

Industry partnerships will improve our identification of and response to workforce needs. A small- or medium-sized business might only need one or two workers a year with certain skills, but in aggregate, employers in a particular region could have enough demand to justify a class at a local community college. Partnership with the Maine Manufacturers Association, for example, can improve identification of jobs that are going unfilled and for which we should provide training. Input from industry might lead to the creation of a course for a state college or an apprenticeship program to meet an industry’s ongoing needs.

The State Workforce Investment Board’s plan sets a new course for Maine’s workforce. Our partners in the K-12 and higher educational systems, in industry associations, in the Chambers and in individual business have a seat at this table and have provided significant and valuable input. However, we need to demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Labor that this new plan has a wider base of support. We are currently in the public comment period, and we ask you, as a Maine citizen, to review our plan and weigh in on it.

Bringing the players in our workforce development system together with businesses and increasing local input is a challenge. However, it must be done. We have a tremendous opportunity not only to improve the earning power of hardworking people, but also to make finding qualified staff easier for businesses. Coupled with the LePage administration’s other reforms, we will attract more businesses to our state, creating more jobs and benefiting our economy.

Jeanne Shorey Paquette was sworn in as Commissioner of Labor in September 2012. She brings with her more than 20 years’ experience in human resources and workforce development. She served for the past year as deputy commissioner of the Department of Labor.

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