June 19, 2018
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More education paths


Gov. Paul LePage asserted last week that thousands of jobs in Maine are going unfilled because potential workers lack skills. Some of that is hyperbole and an over-simplification of the complex dynamics of the labor market. But some of that assessment is accurate, and it points to a problem inherent in the American education system, a problem tied to American egalitarian values.

This week’s The Maine Debate confronts the dilemma of an economy that’s suffering with high unemployment while some businesses struggle to find workers with skills that match their jobs. Join us here from 9 a.m. to noon (and beyond) on Tuesday to contribute ideas on how education can better match the job market.

The governor, who holds a master’s degree in business, believes the current liberal education model is flawed.

“One of the most disturbing things I heard is that our education system is geared to send all students to a four-year college,” he said at a press conference Friday.

The four-year, liberal-arts education ideal is based on the belief that young men and women need a solid base of knowledge and thinking ability from which they can launch into a host of careers. That model is still valid, and perhaps even more so, since rapidly emerging technologies quickly outpace any skills that schools can teach.

Students graduating with a liberal-arts four-year education would have learned to work through several academic disciplines which in turn prepares one to learn all sorts of new intellectual skills.

Public education has been geared to sending many, though not all students, as the governor asserted, to a four-year college. The dramatic rise in enrollment in the state’s community college system provides ample evidence that students are choosing paths other than four-year colleges.

Yet encouraging more high school students to consider a four-year college has been a major educational initiative of recent years, and it should continue. Some high schools now require students to fill out college applications as a graduation requirement. The idea is that they are more likely to file the applications if they’ve completed them. They then see how much financial aid they will get, which in turn might encourage them to shoot for that four-year degree.

The governor is correct, though, in pointing out that other educational options should hold as much status as the four-year degree. For some reason, training that leads to specific jobs — electrician, radiologist, dental hygienist, web designer, energy auditor — is not as highly esteemed as the college degree. Yet the jobs listed above may produce higher wages and more consistent employment than a general college degree.

As Americans, we tend to believe our children are capable of any career course — brain surgeon, nuclear physicist, investment banker, software designer — and we avoid building thresholds over which they must pass to continue toward the top of the academic tower. But the reality is that those who do not have the academic aptitude to be a physicist (or the mechanical aptitude to be a machinist) should be diverted toward another course earlier. Otherwise, we set up young adults to fail in academic pursuits and they end up with no marketable skills.

Gov. LePage seems to be suggesting building more diverse check-out aisles into our public high schools, with many leading seamlessly into skills training. That is a sensible approach, but how can this be implemented?

Join us at The Maine Debate.

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