December 7, 2012

Augusta emphasis: Skills gap education

Initiatives to help companies find workers they need appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The first policy pitch by the Democratic-led Legislature could be right in Gov. Paul LePage's wheelhouse.

The Democratic majority has yet to introduce initiatives that it plans to pursue over the next two years. But the Legislature's new leaders have been telegraphing an emphasis on the state's so-called skills gap between available jobs and a work force that's unqualified to fill them.

Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland and House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick discussed the issue Wednesday in speeches at the State House, hinting that the first bill of the session may be an attempt to address it.

If such legislation materializes, it could represent Democrats' first policy outreach with appeal to Republicans, including LePage.

More importantly, it could address a problem that may leave an estimated 3,863 jobs unfilled between now and 2018, according to a report commissioned by Southern Maine Community College.

The report, done last year by Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland, projected that Maine will suffer "a severe shortage of workers" in computer, information technology and precision manufacturing industries if Maine does not beef up training and educational offerings in those fields.

The study came to the same conclusion about a projected shortage of skilled labor for hospitality, transportation/shipping and science technology jobs.

The governor has been hammering the skills-gap issue for two years. Last year, he met with a group of business leaders who were nearly unanimous in lamenting a work force that's ill-prepared for available jobs.

LePage also signed into law L.D. 627, a bill that allocated $257,000 to York County Community College to respond to demand from Pratt & Whitney for precision machine tool operators.

The large regional employer kicked in $100,000 to assist the effort. Business leaders saw the contribution as a reflection of the size and prevalence of the problem.

Chris Hall, vice president of government relations for the Portland Regional Chamber, said the skills gap is a "diverse and serious issue" for Maine and other states.

A recent report from the Manufacturing Institute showed that more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide were unfilled because employers couldn't find workers.

"There are thousands of available jobs, but companies don't see where that work force is going to come from," Hall said. "We have to find a way to fill those jobs. Companies are here for a reason. ... Nobody looks forward to outsourcing these jobs elsewhere or overseas."

Tackling the issue will likely require long-term education and diverting already-limited funding for higher education.

Maine's community college system has appealed for more state funding, citing skyrocketing enrollment but stagnant budgets.

Additionally, it's more expensive to beef up a trade-based curriculum than one heavy in liberal arts. In fact, many community colleges pay more to give trade-based courses than they receive in tuition.

According to data from SMCC, the college spends $1.5 million more to train nursing students than it receives in annual tuition from those students. It takes a $500,000 annual hit for manufacturing training. Computer technology costs an estimated $100,000 more annually.

"These and other educational programs lead to some of the most economically vital and rewarding professions," said President Ron Cantor. "To truly close the work force skills gap, we need to close the funding gap."

It's unclear how far a Democratic proposal will go toward addressing the issue. For now, Democratic leaders are emphasizing collaboration between businesses and education organizations.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said lawmakers are looking at business-education partnerships and reviewing the education system to make sure it is responsive to job needs.

"This is an important issue that hits three areas of need," Goodall said. "It puts people back to work, keeps our businesses here and grows the entire Maine economy."

(Continued on page 2)

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