SOUTH PORTLAND – According to official declarations, the Great Recession ended in June of 2009. The U.S. economy has been picking up speed ever since, based on the Gross Domestic Product and Corporate Profits indexes.

For many, however, the recession is still very much with us. State governments are facing severe financial cuts, poverty rates have gone up and unemployment, both nationally and among our friends and neighbors, continues to be high.

Economists and politicians alike are grappling with a slow-moving recovery that has done little to lower the high rates of unemployment in the United States. While the European Union has experienced greater economic difficulty, it has generally avoided the dramatic growth in unemployment rates.

It appears that the high unemployment we face is not just a leftover of the economic downturn, but is evidence of a new and much greater economic restructuring that is taking place.

Automation, technology and entrepreneurialism have permanently transformed the employment landscape. In the wake of recession-induced downsizing and layoffs, businesses and employers are changing their demands and expectations for new workers.

As a result, new jobs now require higher-level workforce skills, including a college education, communication and management skills, creative and critical thinking in problem solving, and up-to-date proficiency in math, science and technology.

In this fast-changing economic landscape a college degree, and the economic flexibility and security it brings, are critical to both job seekers and employers alike.

There are benefits to be had with this new economic paradigm; the economic shift will lift the professionalism of the workforce and, hopefully, the income of people.

However, without intervention, this shift will also further drive a gap in workforce skills and income disparity, creating an underclass that is essentially permanently unemployed — consisting almost entirely of those workers who are without access to a college degree.

Closing this gap is critical to Maine’s future.

Currently, business leaders are looking to the community colleges for help in confronting a growing shortage of qualified Maine workers — workers who are crucial to expanding their operations and growing our economy.

According to a new economic study commissioned by SMCC, an estimated 26,000 new jobs will be created in Maine over the next 10 years. Of those jobs, nearly 60 percent will require an associate degree.

As just one example of the growing gap, Maine is currently on track to produce 210 IT graduates with an associate’s degree over the next decade. According to the same projections, Maine businesses will need 1,567 associate-degree level IT workers over that same period. The current state of affairs would leave 1,357 of these jobs potentially unfilled in one of the economy’s most vital sectors.

Investment in higher education, and particularly our community colleges, must be recognized as a new economic imperative in Maine if we are to ensure that our state and our people are not left behind in the economic recovery.

Today, 95 percent of SMCC graduates stay and work in Maine and 93 percent gain employment after graduation.

Within a year of graduation, our students see an average wage increase of 73 percent.

This means SMCC’s graduates can see a complete return on their tuition investment in one year.

At an average tuition cost of less than $2,600, a community college degree is perhaps the most affordable, adaptable and dependable economic development tool available — not just for the individual but for businesses and the state as a whole.

Maine’s community colleges are playing a critical role in driving economic development in this new decade and, more importantly, ensuring broad participation in the economic recovery.

As we seek to serve all those who come to us in search of a college degree, our success in meeting the need will depend on the leadership and support of our partners across business, education and government sectors.

– Special to the Press Herald