When it comes to Maine’s economy, the challenge should be creating jobs, not filling them.
But that’s the case in fields such as nursing, engineering and information technology, where Maine companies hire students as fast as they graduate and still are left with open positions. According to one count, Maine needs 15,000 more highly skilled workers.
“These are jobs that Maine has, and that Maine students want,” James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, told the newspaper’s editorial board last week.
Part of the reason the state is not churning out enough graduates in these fields is the condition of its aging facilities, which makes it difficult to attract students in the first place, and to teach the most modern techniques and methods once they are enrolled.
According to Page, 36 percent of the buildings in the University of Maine System are obsolete and in need of renovation, and that number is growing every year. Many of the buildings haven’t been updated in more than 50 years. The community colleges face much the same situation. Rick Hopper, president of Kennebec Valley Community College, said in August that the school’s milling machines in its precision machining lab were built in the 1980s and are now outdated.
The higher education bonds on the Nov. 5 ballot would be a step toward alleviating these issues. Question 2 would provide $15.5 million to the University of Maine System for science- and technology-related upgrades at each of its seven campuses.
Question 4 would provide $4.5 million for a new science facility at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. And Question 5 would provide $15.5 million for upgrades to buildings, classrooms and laboratories at the state’s seven community colleges.
The bonds are part of a bipartisan $149.5 million package approved by the Legislature and Gov. Paul Le-Page this year.
“It has nothing to do with politics,” said Hopper, at an event held earlier this year in support of the bonds package. “It has everything to do with getting people trained and getting them in the labor market, getting them the skills that are needed.”
The funding provided by the bonds would create jobs now, through the construction projects, and later, as the improved facilities and programs build a more talented workforce.
The same can be said for the largest bond in the package – Question 3 on the ballot – which would provide $100 million for transportation infrastructure improvements. The investment from Maine taxpayers would be matched by $154 million in funding from the federal government and other sources.
The bond would provide a much-needed injection of life into Maine’s transportation infrastructure, which a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gives a C-minus overall. Specifically, the report gives Maine roads a D.
According to the report, 53 percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and driving on roads in need of repair costs each Maine motorist an average of $245 extra per each year. In addition, 15 percent of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient.
If approved, the bond would put $44 million toward reconstructing and rehabilitating state highways (with $48 million in federal matching funds), $5 million toward repairing secondary roads, $27 million toward existing bridges, and $24 million toward “multi-modal” projects such as ports, railroads and public transportation (with up to $52 million in federal matching funds).
Question 1 on the ballot also would help update neglected facilities.
The bond would provide $14 million to upgrade and modernize Maine Army National Guard readiness and support centers, and would help purchase land for training.
Voters should approve the five bond questions, each of which represents worthwhile projects that are long overdue.
Maine has the ability to borrow the funding laid out in the bond questions, and the capacity to pay it back, which means the state can afford the projects.
What Maine can’t afford is to fall behind on the investments that will help the economy move forward.