CAPE ELIZABETH – Where did all the students go?
It seemed only apt to consider summer plans today as I spend my spring break in the blanket of a snowstorm.
As the co-proprietor of a business — Mainely Burgers food trucks — that I started with my childhood friend, I know what I’m doing this summer. But as I’m realizing this week, not a lot of my friends have any clue what their plans are. They will tell you, though, that they won’t be returning home to Maine.
It’s no secret that the current job market has placed greater emphasis than ever on specialization, “learned experiences” and networking. For college students around the country, there is tremendous pressure to find a valuable experience for themselves to span those precious three months that we used to call summer vacation.
For many it’s the pressure of finding a valuable experience to help you in a job market when you have no idea what job you might want. For those with more specific aims, like medicine or finance, it can be even worse, as thousands of students apply to ridiculously competitive internships in big cities.
But what concerns me most, for my state, is how many students don’t come home for those summer experiences. In fact, many of them never even consider it.
Thousands of Maine students ship off every fall to colleges and universities around the country. Too many of them don’t come back. There just aren’t enough opportunities, and it’s time to change that. Bringing these students back to Maine for valuable internships and jobs during their summer breaks would provide the state with a roadmap for future economic success.
Think about a baseball team. The road to long-term success, as proven by the impending collapse of the New York Yankees, is a good farm system. Draft talented players, develop them within your organization and hope that you receive a good return on your investment one day. It’s solid economics. The same should be applied to promising Maine students.
Apparently we’ve dubbed this the “skills gap,” but Mainers are plenty skilled. The issue is getting Mainers to spend their careers as Mainers. Setting up programs to keep young students and recent graduates in Maine would be a major step toward filling that gap.
We’ve already seen this idea in some industries, particularly medicine in Maine. Maine Medical Center and my university, Tufts, have teamed up to establish “Maine Track” for medical students who are interested in “a unique, innovative curriculum that offers clinical training experiences in Maine and exposes medical students to the unique aspects of rural practice.” The hope is that, along with providing these hospitals with an added boost, it will help to remedy the shortage of physicians in Maine.
Project Login, at the University Maine, is doing something similar with students in technology-related majors. More businesses need to start programs like that.
Here’s the idea: Across all industries, Maine’s most successful companies, firms and individuals set up programs open to all students who grew up or currently go to school in Maine. Name them after our most decorated Mainers. Make them prestigious, competitive and valuable for the students and the companies. During the summer, the students involved meet with the elected officials, business leaders and other Maine dignitaries. They develop a network of mentors in Maine. Slowly we fill the gap in skilled workers by training promising students in those fields, taking a huge step toward keeping them in Maine.
As the Kennebec Journal pointed out Monday, 80 percent of Maine businesses have fewer than 10 employees; 90 percent have fewer than 20 employees. That means one or two skilled new hires would make a big difference. It’s also an advantage for Maine in attracting students to these programs: Smaller offices mean more personal learning experiences and relationships.
Many of the students I’ve spoken to would love to come home if opportunities like that were available. Maine’s best companies can make that happen. Maine has a great farm system. Instead of letting our best prospects leave to free agency, let’s call them up to the big leagues.