July 23, 2018
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Investing in higher ed is one way Maine can attract more young workers

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Ed Cervone, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Maine employers need more people with the career skills to grow and sustain their businesses. Demographics are working against us. Our population is stagnant, and retirees are expected to outnumber our youth in a couple years. Jobs are going unfilled across all industries, and we cannot expect relief anytime soon. Action is needed.

The nation is faced with the same challenge. This is not meant to make us feel better; it is meant to get us thinking about how we change the situation and gain a competitive edge in the market.

Maine is one of 41 states that have adopted an education attainment goal, with the aim that 60 percent of our workforce will have a credential of value — in addition to a high school degree — that connects them to a good job in Maine by 2025. This includes skilled-trade certificates, professional credentials and college degrees. We are at 43 percent. A public-private coalition of more than 30 organizations and state agencies is tackling this challenge.

There are two ways to reach our goal: train more people and attract more people to Maine with credentials in hand. We must do both. Workforce development is competitive. States across the nation are investing considerable resources into solutions that grow their workforce. Maine must follow suit at a scale that matches the need or fall behind.

Happily, it looks like Maine voters will get the opportunity to weigh in on a package of investments to improve the skills of Maine people and attract new talent to our economy. A bond package will be presented to the governor and Legislature that should provide much-needed investment in our public higher education systems and make a serious commitment to attracting and retaining talent.

The University of Maine and Maine Community College Systems are requesting funds to expand their ability to attract and educate workforce. These are good investments. Both systems are leading the state’s workforce efforts by working with K-12 educators, state government and Maine businesses to align efforts. Both systems will be responsible for delivering the majority of the credentials needed in skilled trades, tech industries and other professional-service sectors. The systems serve the key target population — young adults and adult workers — and they are our most effective public programs to attract them.

No other public program has the ability to draw people in from outside of Maine, get them to pay tuition, and remain here for years. These are students who work at Maine businesses, intern with community employers, and help us meet the increasing workforce demands of growing sectors like hospitality that require considerable numbers of workers during tourist season. The University of Maine System now enrolls more than 5,700 students from out of state, up nearly 40 percent from just five years ago. These individuals can and should make Maine their home.

Most importantly, both systems have worked with the governor’s office over the last eight years to build efficiencies, work better together and better serve Maine’s people and its economy. The systems are committed to being accessible and affordable to Maine people. The Maine Community College System has frozen its tuition, and the university system has instituted only one tuition increase in almost seven years and recently launched a promise program at four campuses covering fees and tuition for eligible Maine students.

The university system has asked for $75 million that would build education and training capacity in high demand sectors like computer science and nursing, to name a few. The community college system is asking for $15 million for technology investments that would allow them to better train students for jobs in Maine. Both systems would invest in campus facilities and technology. This helps the state maintain a product that is desirable to students from Maine and beyond.

Remember, higher education is a competitive market with a shrinking customer base. Just because “it was good enough for us” doesn’t mean today’s customer thinks it’s good enough for them. Students have many more choices, and Maine must present an attractive product of value or students will go elsewhere.

This is a “big idea” that we sorely need. When paired with existing programs that help workers and employers keep talent in state, Maine is finally playing at a scale needed to win. Naysayers will balk at the price tag. I encourage them to speak to Maine employers — frugality on this issue is costing them dearly.

Ed Cervone is the executive director of Educate Maine.

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