One of the best investments Maine can make in boosting economic development is educating the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs. The relationship between an educated work force and business growth is not a chicken-and-egg proposition; research shows that jobs follow education, not the other way around.
Maine has a good state university and college system. In recent years, the state has developed a very successful community college system. Demand for both paths is growing, and if policies are aimed at removing financial, geographical and other barriers, more and more Mainers will get the education needed to compete in the 21st century.
But Gov. Paul LePage and his Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen are correct in pushing for a better and broader vocational educational system.
The general education that students gain in state university and community college classes is important and valuable. Knowing how to write, think, analyze, reason and compute while also having a base knowledge about history, science and the arts provide a leg up on the jobs of the future and help create better citizens. But there must also be a path for those who will rely more on skills than critical thinking in their employment.
The key is to offer post-secondary, skill-based education that is realistically matched to the job and business market. In recent decades, too many high school students learned how to weld, do auto body repair work or care for preschool children only to find there were few employment opportunities or poor pay scales for those skills.
More recently, vocational education — whether at the secondary or post-secondary level — has been matched to real employment growth in the Maine economy in the fields of health care (guaranteed to be strong as baby boomers age), law enforcement and food services, among others.
In addition to programs that can be matched to job growth, post-secondary vocational education should include a strong business component. Hundreds of young men and women who know how to start, nurture and grow their own businesses will be a boon to the Maine economy.
The governor’s five-year high school plan remains a tough sell, given the burdens schools now shoulder as they work to graduate more students and meet the many benchmarks set by state and federal guidelines. But Gov. LePage is correct in wanting to develop the vocational or skill-based education sector so it stands tall beside the university and community college systems.