Gov. Paul LePage has made boosting Maine’s competitiveness a cornerstone of the first two major addresses of his second term in office. More than anything, Maine’s competitive edge depends on the state having competitive people — and that requires investment.
Yes, many crucial investments in Maine people — such as funding for early childhood education — will produce a return over the long term. But Maine also can realize a shorter-term payoff through a deliberate, people-oriented investment that marries worker education and business needs.
Maine House Speaker Mark Eves is proposing a $5 million, five-year initiative this winter to jumpstart Maine Industry Partnerships. The North Berwick Democrat is proposing seed funding in hopes of launching 10 such partnerships across the state through a program the Legislature started in 2013, but to which it allocated limited funding.
Last month, Eves highlighted one partnership example already in place in York County. There, about 30 businesses, with the help of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, came together and decided there was a regional need for workers skilled in precision machining. The Legislature kicked in about $300,000, and Pratt & Whitney — which manufactures engine parts for military and commercial jets at a 1,300-employee North Berwick facility — put up another $250,000 to start a precision machining program at York County Community College. The first class of 15 students in the certificate program graduated last spring.
Industry partnerships also have been part of the state Department of Labor’s workforce development strategy in recent years, especially when it comes to training long-term unemployed workers for new jobs. A $4.85 million, two-year federal grant is helping the department set up workforce academies to train unemployed workers based on the needs of local employers, such as manufacturers in southern Maine and health care providers elsewhere in the state. The employers are involved in accepting program participants.
Adapting a model from New Hampshire, the department also is working with three major hospitals to set up a medical assistant apprenticeship program: The hospitals have a demonstrated need and assume some of the training costs; the participants receive the required certification and credit toward an associate’s degree.
Partnerships such as these, in a variety of forms, could benefit from the funding proposed in Eves’ bill — and allow the programs to expand beyond serving unemployed workers.
The $5 million would provide the seed money to begin such partnerships across the state, Eves said. The grant process should emphasize the use of high-quality data that’s becoming more readily available to identify the workforce demands of employers. The training involved should emphasize critical thinking, problem-solving, comfort with technology and adaptability — skills that are in demand in growing industries.
The investment makes sense for Maine as part of a larger workforce investment strategy that also emphasizes high-quality early childhood education and advanced degrees and research on the other end. While Georgetown University’s education and workforce center projects about 60 percent of Maine jobs will require postsecondary education by 2018, not all of those jobs will require bachelor’s degrees — particularly in the advanced industries that drive much of the nation’s economic growth and pay high wages.
“Overall, firms need to get much more involved in developing the skills pipeline, and the public sector must become much more responsive to their needs,” reads a recently released research paper by Brookings Institution researchers on fostering growth in the nation’s advanced industries, which are heavy on high-tech manufacturing, engineering and data processing.
The partnership initiative is modeled largely after one that has been in place for a decade in Pennsylvania, where 6,300 businesses in construction, manufacturing, logistics and transportation, health care, energy and other fields in need of workers participated in the program’s first five years. Those businesses chipped in $9 million to support the training, along with $30 million in in-kind contributions in the first five years. The state started off with a $20 million annual investment that has since shrunk.
A state investment in industry-educational partnerships in Maine would be a promising first step.