December 18, 2017
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With Maine worker shortages looming, universities seek ways to pump out more grads

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page. Gabor Degre | BDN

Maine’s universities are trying to figure out how to pump out more graduates — nurses, engineers, computer scientists and more — that the state will need desperately in coming years.

Maine is predicting a dramatic shortage of skilled workers in the next decade, including a projected shortfall of 3,200 nurses by 2025, according to a recent study.

During a two-day meeting in Farmington, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees grappled with the question of how the state’s universities could best help fill looming vacancies and bring people back into the working world.

“We are the critical cog in this wheel, but we can’t do it alone,” University of Maine System Chancellor James Page told trustees Monday. “I don’t see a path forward for meeting these needs that does not involve public education in an integral way.”

The state’s universities would have to collaborate closely with community colleges, hospitals, lawmakers, nongovernmental organizations, employers and others to target these employment gaps and bring more people into Maine’s workforce.

Economic growth goes hand-in-hand with growth in the job market, according to John Dorrer, a consultant and former acting commissioner for the Center for Workforce Research and Information.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, about 30,000 Mainers were dropped from the workforce, largely in manufacturing, construction and retail fields. While those numbers have shown signs of recovery, and economic conditions have made a turn for the better, many of the high-wage, high-skill jobs have been exported to other states. Dorrer said those jobs likely aren’t coming back, and faced with Maine’s demographics challenges — deaths outpacing births, and out migration across much of the state — sustained growth will be an uphill climb.

If jobs continue to edge out of Maine and labor force growth doesn’t pick up, “we will, at some point, see Maine’s [Gross Domestic Product] growth reverse itself,” Dorrer told the trustees.

“Many of those people who were thrown out of that economy [after 2008] haven’t come back in,” Dorrer said, adding that the state’s universities and community colleges will need to play an crucial role in bringing some of those former workers back into the loop.

But sending people out the door with degrees won’t be enough, Dorrer cautioned.

“It’s not just about degrees. It’s about ensuring the people we put out have the skills they need,” he said, adding that many trade jobs will require stronger training programs to prepare people to enter certain fields.

Another growing workforce challenge, not just in Maine but across the nation, is that many employers aren’t just looking for degrees, they’re looking for experience, according to Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a labor market research and consulting firm.

“Increasingly, the bottom rungs are coming out of the job market,” Sigelman told the trustees. Fewer jobs consider people coming out of school to be qualified, demanding several years experience out of potential employees. In other words, entry-level positions are on the decline.

That means internships could carry a growing role in education, as institutions try to prepare students for the demands of their respective fields. Growing partnerships between universities and employers will be needed to build those internship programs, and many will need financial support, as unpaid internships aren’t a viable option for many students, especially nontraditional students who can’t go without a paycheck.

The University of Maine at Presque Isle recently announced a program aimed at courting students who have completed some college by giving them a chance to earn a business degree for under $10,000. Since the university announced that effort last month, more than 100 people applied for the program, according to the system.

To counter the looming engineer shortage, UMS plans to invest in the University of Southern Maine’s engineering program, which recently received national accreditation. USM will work closely with the flagship campus in Orono, which already has a strong engineering focus, as it builds this program and tries to draw students. The campus has been directed to develop a five-year “buildup plan” for the program.

The system will be looking for success similar to that seen in Project Login, launched in 2013 with the aim of eventually doubling the state’s number of graduates in computer science. Page said that program has been meeting its incremental goals.

System officials have built a 35-page list of similar workforce-building initiatives across the seven campuses, and are working to focus on ones that will have a significant impact at producing graduates to fill workforce vacancies.

“Our citizens know what they need to do,” Page said. “They need assistance, resources and partners in making that happen.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 


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