PORTLAND – CNBC recently ranked each state based on various business-related criteria.

One category evaluated each state’s work force, including education levels, the number of available workers and the success of state-level retraining programs at placing participants in jobs. In that area, Maine ranked 40th overall, and 44th in the work force category.

At this month’s Blaine House summit with business leaders, Gov. LePage rightly highlighted the problem — 24,000 Mainers receive unemployment benefits, but there are 21,000 job openings. The short-term problem is that the unemployed do not have the right skills to fill existing shortages. In the long term, Maine is not educating the future work force for the jobs of the future.

Thus some of Maine’s top employers are creating jobs elsewhere.

Merely recognizing the problem is insufficient — Maine citizens deserve a solution. To cut the unemployment rate in half and create a work force congruent with the future needs of employers, Maine must swiftly implement a bold plan.

DATA, NOT ANECDOTES

Action must be based on data, not anecdotes. The state should immediately survey small and large businesses to determine the fields where shortages currently exist, and where they will exist in the next five to 10 years.

The state should utilize data available from economists at the Labor Department and “real time” data gathered from online job posting sites, and partner with local chambers of commerce to convene focus groups and gather additional data.

MOBILIZE EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS

Once we know where the job shortages are, and where they will be, we must mobilize Maine’s education system at all levels to quickly develop curricula to address the need. In the short-term, adult education programs and community colleges must rapidly retrain workers to fill current shortages. In order to hold down retraining costs and ensure availability statewide, the state should use existing federal stimulus funds to expand interactive video conferencing capabilities.

In the long term, Maine’s colleges and universities must broadly integrate the skills necessary for the jobs of the future — problem solving, critical thinking, IT, math, science — into each and every degree program.

PARTNERSHIP TO FUND RETRAINING

Maine’s 24,000 unemployed citizens — many of whom find themselves unexpectedly unemployed after a long career in another sector — lack the skills required to fill the state’s 21,000 job openings, as well as the financial resources to pay for midlife retraining.

The solution is for the state and the business community to raise a public-private loan fund to pay two-thirds of the cost of retraining. To ensure accountability, the funding should be structured as forgivable loans — for each year a recipient works in Maine, a percentage of the debt is forgiven. With proper coordination, this partnership could cut the unemployment rate in half within two years.

STEER STUDENTS TOWARD GROWTH AREAS

To ensure a skilled work force congruent with the long-term needs of Maine’s employers, the state must actively steer high school and college students toward fields of future job growth.

The state should partner with administrators, educators and business leaders to develop a robust program of job fairs, job shadowing and internships focused on growth areas, and guidance counselors should be equipped with the most current work force data available.

While pioneering programs already exist in isolated pockets of the state — such as the Career Pathways program at Portland High School — they must be expanded statewide.

HOW TO PAY FOR IT

When large numbers of people are out of work, state revenues decline, yet demand for state-funded services skyrockets. If the state fails to retrain the unemployed now, or educate future workers for future jobs, the budget crisis will only get worse.

Elected officials, however, must find a way to pay for it. They should carefully consider a recent report by Envision Maine that offers a pragmatic framework.

The report compares Maine’s spending in certain areas to rural-state averages. For instance, Maine spends 11 percent above the rural-state average on K-12 education, 136 percent more on corrections and 101 percent more on Medicaid.

By reallocating a small amount from areas of “overspending,” we can pay for a workable solution to the current crisis and create a work force to drive future growth.

The core question for LePage and the Legislature is whether they have a political will equal to the challenge.

– Special to the Telegram