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

The committee will target training and the so-called skills gap between available jobs and a work force that’s unqualified to fill them.

It is the newly elected Democratic majority’s first policy initiative, and it could get support from Gov. Paul LePage and Republican lawmakers.

House Speaker 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.

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

Democratic leaders had hinted in the past few weeks that the skills gap and work force development would be the focus of policy efforts.

Business advocates told the Portland Press Herald this month that the emphasis is 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 education 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.

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

Maine’s community college system has appealed for more state funding, citing soaring enrollment but stagnant budgets. College leaders note that it’s more expensive to beef up a trade-based curriculum than one that’s heavy in liberal arts. Many community colleges pay more to give trade-based courses than they receive in tuition.

“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 prepared 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 to address the issue.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said Wednesday that he was disappointed that Democratic leaders did not contact Republican leaders before announcing the committee.

Fredette noted that it was the second time that Democratic leaders had launched a policy initiative without including Republicans. On Monday, Eves indicated that leaders would create a task force to address gun violence.

Fredette did say, “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 said, “Hopefully this committee will lead to real reform.”

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.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

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