February 27, 2020
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Education innovation answer to worker shortage and employment disruptions

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Students walk across the University of Maine Mall in Orono between classes in this April 25, 2011, file photo.

Maine employers are struggling to find workers, a situation exacerbated by the aging-out of its baby boomers and a state unemployment rate substantially below the national average.

To make matters worse another workforce challenge looms on the horizon — the anticipated disruption to the labor market from artificial intelligence, which will increase demand for already scarce high-skilled talent while diminishing opportunities for those with lesser skills whose jobs are more vulnerable to automation.

This daunting double-barreled challenge — shortages and disruptions — puts increased pressure on Maine to educate, retain and attract high-skilled workers and also to provide post-secondary education to Mainers who will need more than a high school education to secure career-oriented employment. Mid-career workers will require continuous retraining to upgrade skills to remain productive in an increasingly competitive global economy.

In her inaugural address, Gov. Janet Mills pledged to develop a first-class workforce in Maine to address the frustration of employers who cannot find workers and the dissatisfaction of workers stuck in dead-end jobs without the skills for advancement. The governor recognized the complexity of this challenge by noting that technological innovation will radically alter the way Maine people live, learn and work.

The nationwide skills gap describes the mismatch between employer expectations and the capabilities of job candidates, which has resulted in thousands of unfilled jobs. Employers have become frustrated that the high school and college diploma has become an unreliable indicator of competency. Today, skills are seen as more valuable than the degree, a shift that educational institutions will have to take into account or risk losing their hold on awarding the key credential for access to good jobs.

It will take more than business as usual to close this gap. The state’s educational institutions cannot achieve reform without substantial innovation including a different relationship with the employer community, the integration of career and liberal education, and stronger programs geared specifically for adult learners to upgrade skills.

Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce has pointed out that even though 70 percent to 80 percent of college students work and 25 percent go to school full time and work full time, there has been scant coordination between work and school. To close the skills gap, employers and educators at all levels will have to work much closer together to identify and develop skills including giving employers a role in educating students in imaginative learning/earning programs.

College students have voted with their feet by fleeing traditional liberal arts programs in favor of majors closely tied to a career path. The high cost of education and the burden of student loan obligations have made students focus on the return on investment for their time and money spent pursuing post-secondary degrees. But technical specialization represents only half the equation.

Employers are also seeking skills closely identified with the liberal arts — thinking critically, writing and speaking clearly, identifying multiple approaches to problems and exhibiting strong interpersonal skills to relate to customers and other constituents. Preparing students for the 21st century workplace will require innovative programs that integrate liberal and career-oriented programs and combining those with experiential education.

The shrinking number of young people in Maine should provide impetus for educational institutions to reorient their missions to serve adult students. As jobs that do not require post-secondary education dry up, more Mainers will need some kind of post-secondary education. Work, family, child care, poor preparation for academic work and time away from school are all complicating factors that make traditional programs difficult for these students. We cannot rely on traditional academic programs to serve this population but need more imaginative programs with a closer connection to employment.

The innovation that Mills has called for will require employers and educational institutions to engage in experimentation with pilot projects accompanied by a system of tracking success and failure. Maine will close its skills gap only by fostering and funding such educational innovation.

Joseph W. McDonnell is a professor of public policy and management at the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.


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