EDITORIALS

First-of-its-kind workforce bill shouldn’t be the last

State Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, right, gestures as she discusses workforce development during a meeting of the Legislature's Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future in February 2013. To Grant's right are fellow committee members Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, and Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland.
Scott Thistle | Sun Journal
State Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, right, gestures as she discusses workforce development during a meeting of the Legislature's Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future in February 2013. To Grant's right are fellow committee members Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, and Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland.
Posted May 28, 2013, at 2:22 p.m.

In the background of contentious politics at the State House this session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers came together to address Maine’s workforce needs. Let’s not forget the work of legislators on the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, which produced LD 90. Sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the bill was approved unanimously by the Legislature.

Now the Appropriations Committee must find $5 million, to be spent over two years, for the bill to take effect. The Legislature also will need to maintain the momentum it has gained on the issue of workforce development and continue to expand and strengthen efforts that help people get the skills they need to find or provide jobs.

The bill has 14 parts, most of which center on aligning worker and business needs. Committee member Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, described it as a recognition of a demand for “better coordination” and a “more intelligent allocation of resources.”

For example, it establishes a cooperative initiative to ensure that the Department of Labor, Department of Education, Department of Economic and Community Development, University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System work with Maine industries to better share ideas and training opportunities, align curricula and help strengthen connections among business leaders. Improved collaboration is critical to building regional and statewide economic development strategies.

The bill also would capitalize on a resource Maine has — its aspiring postsecondary students — and provide $1.18 million so 500 more students could enroll annually in 14 high-demand, high-wage programs in the community college system. It would bring the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program to up to 30 more schools, to help more high school students prepare for careers. And it would create a scholarship for more than 1,000 adult learners who left college without completing their degrees but want to return.

The committee’s ranking minority member Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, emphasized how greater access to educational programs can improve people’s long-term productivity. The bill recognizes the challenges faced by people in rural parts of the state and proposes to fund four new high-demand degree programs through the Bring College to ME program. This will allow community colleges to move select classes to rural areas, using existing buildings.

“It has proven to be one of the most successful programs we have ever started in the system, and it has led to higher graduation rates and success for students finding employment,” testified Dr. John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System.

The bill also recognizes the challenges facing highly skilled, foreign-trained workers such as doctors, engineers and lawyers, and would create a pilot “welcome center” within the Portland adult education program to help individuals more quickly find work and resources. If successful, the center may be replicated elsewhere.

Ambitiously, the bill would set a September 2014 deadline in statute for the University of Maine and community college systems to devise a credit-transfer system. The goal is important: to lower costs for students who transfer and to reduce the amount of time it takes them to get degrees.

The bill also would help students and employers by creating a statewide internship-matching program with assistance from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. And it would fully fund the Maine Apprenticeship Program.

The bill tackles a range of issues affecting high school students, college students, workers, nontraditional students and employers. But, as Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said, more must be done: “Workforce needs will always be at the forefront.” We agree and recognize the bill as one of many future steps toward providing greater economic security for Maine residents.

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