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October 24, 2013

OUR OPINION: Out of school, out of work

Almost 15 percent of Americans age 16-24 are out of school and out of work. That’s 6 million young adults who are building neither skills nor experience, putting them behind as they head into their most productive years.

In Maine, the picture is only slightly better, with 13.4 percent in that age group neither in school nor working, according to a study released this week by Opportunity Nation.

Statewide, that is around 24,000 young Mainers who are fast becoming lost in the adult world. They longer they stay idle, the less connected they are to the community, and the more likely it becomes that they will be a financial drain on the state.

The path ends at any number of state assistance programs, but it begins much earlier, in grade school. Along the way, there are opportunities to forge a new way, when caring adults can intervene to change the direction.

Maine, and most other states, have to be better at recognizing risk factors — poor school performance, involvement in the child welfare system, a history of problem behaviors, to name a few — and acting to mitigate them, so this vast pool of human potential is not wasted.

The prevalence of what are called disengaged, or idle, youth is not new. In 2006, then-Gov. John Baldacci established a task force to look at the issue. The next year, the group issued its recommendations, which were approved by the Legislature and signed into law.

The task force found that completing high school was difficult for students who moved a lot, not only because of the instability that causes, but also  because of the logistics of transferring credits from one school to another. The group heard from students who were forced to retake classes after moving. In many cases, that struggle led to the student dropping out. Sometimes, no one from the school came to look for the dropouts, raising questions about how much attention these at-risk students receive.

The work of the task force established individualized learning plans for students, to help guide them through school and into the workforce. It allowed for the issuance of diplomas by the state Department of Education for students who are unable to graduate from their local high school because of disruptions caused by, among other issues, homelessness, foster care placement or hospitalization. The department says it has issued 25 diplomas thus far.

That is a good start, but the percentage of idle youth has remained relatively constant for years, indicating that kids continue to fall through the cracks. With poverty and youth unemployment rates increasing, pressure is  mounting on schools to get at-risk students the training they need.

To that end, a promising public-private partnership is emerging. Companies such as construction giant Cianbro and E.J. Prescott, based in Gardiner, are training students themselves, after having difficulty finding workers with the right skills.

Students need to be exposed to these career-focused programs in high school, so they see that there is a future for them in the workforce, regardless of their background.





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