ANALYSIS

Will workforce committee’s work close Maine’s skills gap?

Matthew Stone, Erin Rhoda, Andrew Catalina and Eric Zelz | BDN
By 2018, 59 percent of Maine jobs are expected to require some form of post-secondary training, be it a four-year degree, an associate’s degree or a specialized skills certificate. Yet in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 37.2 percent of Maine’s 25- to 34-year-olds held a post-secondary degree, a figure that lagged the national average of 39.3 percent. A special legislative committee is at work on a proposal designed to strengthen Maine's workforce in part by boosting the percentage of the state's population with a post-secondary degree.
Posted March 29, 2013, at 5:40 p.m.
Daniel Clark (foreground) a computer engineering major at the University of Maine was among the students who attended the University of Maine kick-off event for Project>Login in February.
Daniel Clark (foreground) a computer engineering major at the University of Maine was among the students who attended the University of Maine kick-off event for Project>Login in February. Buy Photo

Fifty-nine percent of Maine jobs will require some form of postsecondary training by 2018, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Yet in 2010, U.S. Census Bureau data show, just 37.2 percent of Maine’s 25- to 34-year-olds held a postsecondary degree, be it a four-year degree, an associate degree or a specialized skills certificate.

A specially appointed legislative committee this spring is weighing a multipronged approach to closing that “skills gap” and developing Maine’s workforce so businesses can expand by more easily finding workers with the qualifications they need to fill key openings.

The bipartisan, 15-member Select Committee on Maine ’s Workforce and Economic Future hasn’t completed legislation, but a draft proposal its members have released focuses heavily on efforts to increase the percentage of Maine residents with some form of postsecondary degree and includes new spending initiatives.

But some Republicans on the workforce committee have cautioned against millions of dollars in new spending as the Legislature starts work on Gov. Paul LePage’s new two-year budget proposal, which is designed to fill an $880 million structural budget hole.

And efforts aimed simply at boosting the percentage of Maine’s population with postsecondary degrees aren’t likely to be enough, said John Dorrer, former director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Maine Department of Labor.

“While I’m all in favor of committing to investing in higher education and making sure we get more people down the track of getting degrees, I think we’ve got to be absolutely certain that those degrees are backed up with a lot more rigor,” said Dorrer, now a senior adviser with Boston-based Jobs for the Future. “Quite frankly, that’s what our global competition is doing.”

Maine needs an overall strategy for its future economy and needs to align workforce development efforts accordingly, starting with early childhood, Dorrer said. To that end, he said, the workforce committee’s legislation should be “the first installment of the committee’s work rather than the last chapter of what needs to be done.”

Targeting transfers, adults

The workforce committee has started the conversation about filling Maine’s skills gap with draft legislation that charges the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System with, once and for all, creating a seamless system that allows students to apply community college credits toward university degrees and vice versa.

The university system’s seven campuses have been at work off and on for four decades trying to solve the problem that keeps students from applying the credits they earn on one campus toward a degree at another campus. The committee’s draft legislation would set a September 2014 deadline for the university and community college systems to solve the problem, and to solve it first for degree programs in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

The committee also has its collective eye on growing existing programs — and embarking upon some new initiatives — aimed at spurring the state’s adult population to complete college degrees.

The panel’s legislation would send $640,000 over the next two years to the Maine Community College System so it can build on its Bring College to ME program and create eight new degree programs in high-demand, high-wage sectors. The focus will be providing those opportunities in the state’s rural areas, where access to higher education is limited.

And the bill would provide the state’s public universities with $2.3 million over the next two years so they can offer scholarships to Maine adults who have completed some college coursework but haven’t earned a degree. In addition, the draft legislation suggests an adult learning task force to develop a strategy for reaching more of those Maine adults; the University of Maine System estimates there are between 150,000 and 230,000 in the state.

“The experience many times says many people don’t know they’re close to [degree] completion,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said at a recent committee meeting.

The workforce committee also will consider granting more funding to existing programs so they can help more adults with career planning, work with high schools to develop career planning courses and allow more young people to complete apprenticeships and internships in fields that interest them. Also on the table is a proposal for $4 million more for the Maine Community College System so it can reduce waiting lists for high-demand, high-wage programs.

Lawmakers have also discussed how Maine workers can gain recognition for skills they’ve picked up on the job or in military service rather than through a degree program. Their bill sets up the Maine Skills Academy, which would be charged with developing a way for verifying and recognizing workers’ skills.

And a proposal they’ve included to form Maine Industry Partnerships in the state Department of Labor would have state officials and employers collaborating to periodically identify and publicize the economic sectors most in need of workers. Under the program, any state agency that has a hand in training workers — whether at prisons or through welfare programs — would conduct training programs with those economic needs in mind.

“This is a wonderful start, but this is going to be a 10-year process if not more,” Sen. Seth Goodall, the Democratic Senate leader and a chairman of the workforce committee, said Friday.

Maine’s jobs evolution

In 1969, the industries that formed the backbone of the rural economy — agriculture, forestry and manufacturing — accounted for one in four Maine jobs. By 2004, that figure had dropped to one in 19. And workforce projections from the Maine Department of Labor show those sectors — for which Maine’s workforce has been equipped — are likely to continue to shed jobs through 2018.

It’s well known the jobs that are replacing the jobs of Maine’s traditional economy require more education and specialized training. Half of the 10 occupations that will see the fastest job growth through 2018 require at least an associate degree, according to state Labor Department projections.

By contrast, none of the 10 occupations slated for the highest rate of job losses — including machine feeders, file clerks and paper goods machine setters — requires a postsecondary degree.

The logic follows that the state would focus on equipping a greater percentage of its population with college degrees in high-demand fields. And as it pursues those efforts, the data also suggest efforts to entice more adults to complete degrees are well placed.

The traditional college-going demographic, 16- to 24-year-olds, is slated to shrink in Maine through 2018, according to a 2011 Labor Department presentation. So if Maine stands a chance of increasing the percentage of its population with postsecondary degrees, tapping into adult populations would help the state get there.

But it’s not only degrees in specialized fields that future jobs will require, said Dorrer. Successful workers will have a strong set of basic communication, computation and technology skills needed for any job.

“The reality of jobs in the 21st century is, we know they’re going to change,” Dorrer said. “People are going to have to be constantly learning, adapting and moving on.”

Experience, early college, retention

As the Legislature’s workforce committee focuses on equipping more Maine people with postsecondary degrees, the data suggest the committee also could focus on boosting graduation rates among those now enrolled at Maine’s universities and community colleges and on allowing more high school students to enroll in college courses early.

In 2008, the graduation rate for Maine’s public universities was 48 percent, meaning 48 percent of students who entered a university earned a degree within six years. For community colleges, 26 percent of students earned a degree within three years, according to the Sen. George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute.

Research from the Mitchell Institute also shows that Maine students who took college-level courses in high school were more likely than their peers to enroll in two- and four-year degree programs after graduation.

But employers are looking for on-the-job experience, too, suggesting apprenticeship and internship programs would offer Maine workers an advantage.

“I think we’re going to have to do a whole lot more of that,” Dorrer said. “In every advanced and growing economy, they’re doing it superbly.”

Matthew Stone is a reporter in the BDN’s State House bureau.

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