AUGUSTA — Democratic legislative leaders announced Wednesday that they will form a new committee to strengthen Maine’s work force.

The panel will target work force training and the so-called skills gap between available jobs and a work force that’s unqualified to fill them. Over the past few weeks, Democratic leadership had hinted that such an effort would be forthcoming. It marks the first policy initiative by the newly elected Democratic majority and potentially one that could yield support from Gov. Paul LePage and Republican lawmakers.

House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said in a joint statement that the committee will be designed to work with experts and industry leaders to better prepare Maine workers. 

“Maine’s economy has slid backwards during the past two years, while so many of our neighbors have begun to emerge from the recession,” Eves said in a statement. “Democrats and Republicans worked together last session on bipartisan legislation to streamline regulations. Now, we must look at the other side of the coin.”

Goodall, the Senate majority leader, said that “targeting investments that strengthen the skill set of Maine workers will improve our economy and grow the middle class.”

Democratic leaders had hinted that the skills gap and work force development would be the focus of policy efforts. Business advocates told the Portland Press Herald earlier this month that the emphasis was a positive step. 

An estimated 3,863 jobs will go 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. A recent report from the Manufacturing Institute showed that more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide were unfilled because employers couldn’t find workers.

LePage has also lamented the skills-gap issue for two years. The governor earlier this year signed into law LD 627, a bill that allocated $257,000 to York County Community College to respond to demand from Pratt & Whitney for precision machine tool operators.

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. College leaders also note that it’s more expensive to beef up a trade-based curriculum than one heavy in liberal arts. 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. The college takes a $500,000 annual hit for manufacturing training, and computer technology costs an estimated $100,000 more annually.

“Maine needs a short-term plan to jump-start our economy and a long-term vision of Maine’s economic future,” said Senate President Justin Alfond in a statement. “The work of this committee is how Maine can invest in our people, places and businesses. We can grow our economy for today and tomorrow.”

Republicans have previously championed tackling the skills gap and changes in education policy needed to address the issue. 

House Republican leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, on Wednesday said he was disappointed that Democratic leaders had not contacted Republican leaders prior to announcing the committee. Fredette noted that it was the second time that Democratic leadership had launched a policy initiative without including Republicans. The first was Monday when Eves indicated that leaders would create a task force to address gun violence. 

“This is the second time this week that the Democrats have announced a new committee or task force before talking about it with Republicans, which is at odds with their stated goal of working together,” Fredette said. “However, I’m happy to see the Democrats express an interest in joining us in our efforts to connect jobs to education.  For too long they have defended the educational status quo.”

He added, “Hopefully this committee will lead to real reform.” 

Fredette had previously criticized Democrats skills gap talk as a “perfect example of rhetoric over reality.” He noted that Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted against the bill to divert funding to York County Community College.

 Democrats on the committee said they opposed the bill because it made the allocation ongoing rather than subject to legislative approval each year. The bill ultimately passed unanimously in the House and Senate after Republicans approved it in committee.

According to a press release, the legislative committee will meet with work force experts, economists, and business leaders. Members will be named to the committee in the coming weeks.