When Dave Richardson of Ludlow lost his job at the local mill a few years ago, he had a newborn son at home. His first thought was a basic one: “What are we going to do now?”

For Dave and his family, the community colleges were a lifeline. He enrolled in a precision machining program at Northern Maine Community College, earned his associate degree and very quickly got a good job.

Today, he works at Bison Pumps in Houlton as a skilled machinist, helping to build state-of-the-art, deep-well, hand water pumps that are sold around the world.

There are thousands like Dave Richardson all over our state – hardworking Mainers who are either just starting out or have lost their jobs and need new skills to make their way in a changing economy. For all of them and for large and small Maine businesses that are dependent on skilled workers, the community colleges truly are a lifeline.

On Nov. 5, we will have the opportunity to strengthen that lifeline. Question 5 on the statewide ballot asks us to invest $15.5 million to increase the colleges’ capacity to prepare more students for high-wage, high-demand jobs in key areas of the Maine economy: health care, information technology, precision manufacturing and more.

As former governors from different political parties, we have not always agreed on where to spend scarce state resources, but we are in full agreement that investing in our community colleges and the thousands of students they serve is critical to Maine’s future and its ability to build a stronger economy.

Our reasons for voting “yes” on 5 are not complicated.

Enrollment in the community colleges has nearly doubled over the past decade, but difficult economic times have meant that state support has been unable to keep up with that dramatic growth. As a result, the colleges do not have the resources – the classrooms, the lab space, the technology – to serve more students. Question 5 will enable the colleges to expand and upgrade facilities and equipment.

In each of the past two years, the colleges have had to turn away more than 4,000 students from the courses and programs they need to complete a degree.

Last year at Central Maine Community College, more than 300 students applied to the nursing program. There was room to accept only 40.

More than 280 qualified students at Eastern Maine Community College and more than 180 at Kennebec Valley Community College were unable to enroll in their desired program of study, and thousands of students at Southern Maine Community College were unable to access the courses or programs they needed to graduate on time.

Eighty-three programs at the community colleges were at full capacity last year, the majority of them in high-wage, high-demand fields. At the same time, an estimated 4,000 good-paying jobs that require the skills taught at our colleges are at risk of going unfilled over the next few years because of a lack of qualified applicants. And this skills gap will only grow as our workforce ages.

Strengthening Maine’s economy starts with graduating a qualified Mainer for every single one of those 4,000 jobs. And voting “yes” on Question 5 starts us on that path by expanding the colleges’ capacity to serve thousands more students in areas of the economy that are growing and that demand highly skilled workers.

There are other, fundamental reasons to invest in our community colleges.

As their name suggests, the seven colleges and their off-campus centers provide access to higher education to people in communities all across Maine. Ninety-three percent of the students at our community colleges are Maine residents. And 92 percent of graduates who enter the workforce are working right here in Maine.

The average age of students is 27. In between raising kids and holding down jobs, community college students are getting an education and building a promising future in their local community.

In short, we are voting “yes” on 5 to expand opportunity. Opportunity for Maine students to get the skills they need to do the jobs of the 21st century. Opportunities for Maine businesses to grow by hiring people in their local communities. And opportunities for people like Dave Richardson to get a good job and provide a good life for his family.

This fall, as Maine seeks to work its way out of difficult economic times and close a troubling skills gap, we have the collective opportunity to help turn things around by investing in our community colleges and the students they serve. We urge you to join us in voting “yes” on Question 5.

— Special to the Press Herald