How to fill the ‘skills gap’

 A construction worker moves along the upper floor of what would become a glassed-in walkway in the outpatient surgery center then under construction at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
Scott Haskell | BDN
A construction worker moves along the upper floor of what would become a glassed-in walkway in the outpatient surgery center then under construction at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
Posted April 05, 2013, at 3:57 p.m.

Maine’s high school graduation rate increased in the last decade, from 74 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2011. The percentage of students attending college within one year of graduation, however, has not grown, remaining at about 60 percent, according to the Mitchell Institute.

It gets more troubling from there: The 2010 graduation rate for the University of Maine System was 59 percent in 2010, while the rate for the Maine Community College System was 31 percent, according to Educate Maine.

Pair the higher education statistics with projections for future workforce needs, and the problem becomes clear. Between 2008 and 2018, new jobs in Maine requiring postsecondary education and training will grow by 15,000, while jobs for high school graduates and dropouts will grow by only 2,200, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

It will take a continued, concerted effort to not only get people into postsecondary degree programs, but also to match their personal goals to those programs and ensure they finish them. Universities can adapt their offerings to prepare students for the jobs of the future and work to recapture the lost potential of more than 200,000 Maine adults who have obtained some postsecondary education but did not earn a degree or certificate.

Maine residents, too, can use a few specific tools to help them prepare for their educations and careers.

A specially appointed legislative committee is focusing on workforce development issues to help businesses find the qualified workers they need and to boost overall productivity and innovation.

The 15-member Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future has before it draft legislation, LD 90, that proposes measures to close the “skills gap,” such as by creating at the Maine Community College System new degree programs in high-demand, high-wage sectors, and by establishing a scholarship program in the University of Maine System to help adults with prior educational credits return to the university to complete their degrees.

These are welcome endeavors. But junior high or high school students and their parents, adults thinking about changing careers, students starting or ending their college program, and the unemployed should also know of a few excellent resources they can use now to make informed decisions about their futures. The Maine CareerCenter is available, too, but here are some resources you may not have heard of. They are also programs the legislative committee can build on:

1. Next Step Maine. This Maine Development Foundation project launched in September and shows users, for free, what educational programs are available for people pursuing a myriad of careers, how many jobs in each field are projected for Maine and what the expected pay will be. For instance, if you’re seeking an associate degree in business administration, the site allows you to compare the costs per credit at a variety of higher education institutions and learn easily whether you can take classes online or in a physical classroom. You can also see, for example, that the number of openings for business operations specialists is projected to grow 6.1 percent between 2010 and 2020, with an entry wage level of $18.34 per hour.

2. Maine Educational Opportunity Center. The federal education initiative is directed at adults with low-income backgrounds or those who will be the first in their family to attend college. It provides career exploration counseling and financial aid; in 2011, 909 participants enrolled in college, and 1,828 new participants developed career and educational plans.

3. Opportunity Maine Program. The Educational Opportunity Tax Credit reimburses Maine workers for student loan payments if they earn a degree at a Maine school and continue to live and work in the state after graduation. Also, businesses that pay employees’ student loans can claim the tax credit.

4. Education Leaders Experience. The 2013-14 class will connect Maine superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals and assistant principals with business leaders, so they can better prepare students for the state’s economic issues. The application deadline is April 26.

5. Maine Employees’ Initiative. This Maine Development Foundation initiative has a goal of getting 500 Maine employers to promote education and training opportunities for their employees. As Maine’s economy needs more workers with higher skill levels, public and private sectors can ensure the workforce keeps up with the need. Maybe suggest to your employer to get involved.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/05/opinion/editorials/how-to-fill-the-skills-gap/ printed on September 17, 2014