News that the first official policy initiative of Maine’s newly elected legislative leadership is to address the so-called skills gap is encouraging.
The issue is one about which a wide range of business leaders have been complaining for years. It is also one on which Gov. LePage campaigned two years ago.
So perhaps the stars are aligned for bipartisan action on a problem that goes to the heart of Maine’s economic challenge in a way that invidious state rankings by Forbes, The Tax Foundation and hundreds of other publicity-seeking magazine hucksters never can.
Discussion of those rankings invariably descends into squabbling about what is measured, how it is measured and what the measures mean. And the same risk surrounds the term “skills gap.”
It means different things to different people, so whatever committee emerges to address the issue, it will be important for them to define their charge carefully.
For the business person trying to fill a currently empty position, it means paying a fee to a head-hunter or setting up a very specific, short-term, training program and trying to recruit the least unprepared candidates.
For the business person reflecting on the predominance of gray (or no) hair in office cubicles and on shop floors and trying to imagine a staff replacement program consistent with company production and financial goals, it means not current skills gaps but looming future skills gaps.
For these executives, the need is less immediate training and more longer term mentoring programs that both extend the working lives of older workers and broaden the experience, judgment and enterprise commitment of younger workers.
It also means recognizing that filling the skills gap is not just better training and better recruiting for a single company but broad attraction to a state that is currently demographically unsustainable.
Maine needs to not just create jobs so our children can stay near home, but to attract lots of other people’s children from “away” so we can fill jobs that otherwise won’t be created.
For the executive seeking to fill this part of the skills gap, the most helpful public policy is improving our schools, making our neighborhoods safe, attractive and affordable and publicizing this reality in Boston, New York, Washington, Raleigh-Durham, Austin and Silicon Valley.
And finally, there is the skills gap of merely potential jobs. This is not a gap between an existing open job and the inadequate skills of current applicants. Nor is it a gap between an existing filled job and the absence of likely replacements for expected retirements.
This third category is a gap between our future work force and jobs that don’t now exist, that, in many cases, aren’t even imagined, but could exist someday as consumer tastes, public needs and technological progress continue to evolve and change as they have for hundreds of years.
This third is the least immediate job, but it reflects the most important skills gap — the gap in preparing our young for a life of continuous learning, a life where even the concept of “a job” will become obsolete, a life where the most important “skills” are imagination, creativity, optimism, collaboration and persistence.
At the same time, this third, future job highlights a part of the skills gap that resides not with the applicant but with the would-be employer.
If these jobs of the future are to exist in Maine, we need our businesses to close their own skills gaps. Just as the employee of the future will have to possess an attitude of self-reliance, imagination and continuous learning, so the employer of the future must learn that productivity will rise not with greater control or even higher wages but with wider ranging, more frequent and more satisfying employee interactions. If Maine is to have the jobs of the future, we must also have the employers of the future.
The solution for our most important skills gap is not creating higher-skilled wage slaves. It is creating an environment, an entrepreneurial petri dish, where a concentration of highly motivated individuals can enjoy the satisfaction of both shared commitment to common money-making enterprises and life in interesting communities in a beautiful spot on the Earth.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at: