February 2, 2013

Maine Voices: Skilled workers start out as well-educated young Mainers

Kids who complete early learning programs such as Head Start develop skills demanded by employers.

By DANA CONNORS, MEREDITH STRANG BURGESS and ROBERT MOORE

A "skills gap"? Here in Maine, it is very real. We and other Maine businesspeople see it every day.

Let's start with the good news: A recent analysis projects 26,000 new high-wage and high-growth jobs in our state over the next 10 years.

Now, the bad news: It will be hard to fill them.

Over the same period of time, experts predict a shortage of more than 1,500 associate degree workers in information and computer technology in our state; more than 1,000 unfilled machinist positions; and 4,000 high-wage jobs going unfilled.

And it is not just concern about skills needed for particular occupations. The business community is also concerned about the lack of the soft skills in young workers -- communication, collaboration and critical thinking. Young workers need to "learn to learn" so they stay current in our knowledge- and technology-driven global market.

At the same time, education requirements for Maine jobs are increasing. According to a report from the business leaders group America's Edge, which we helped to release, by 2018, almost nine out of 10 new jobs created in our state will require post-secondary education.

Currently, 79 percent of Maine jobs are middle- or high-skill positions, but only 39 percent of Maine adults have associate degrees or higher. There will be 196,000 job vacancies in Maine between 2008 and 2018, but only 6 percent of openings will be for high school dropouts and only 36 percent will be for those with only a high school degree.

What is driving these skills and education gaps? Let's start with some facts.

In Maine, 16 percent of our high school students do not graduate on time; 61 percent of our eighth-graders are below grade level in math, and 68 percent of fourth-graders read below grade level.

Nationwide, 60 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds do not have the basic skills to enter kindergarten, such as the ability to count to 10 or recognize letters in the alphabet.

We certainly must train and re-train our current work force to start closing these skills gaps, but we must also build an infrastructure that will ensure a pipeline of skilled workers for the future. And the foundation of that infrastructure is high-quality early learning.

The Maine business community is results-oriented. And that is why we are focused on the quality of our early learning programs.

By "quality," we mean teacher compensation appropriate to skills and experience; smaller class sizes and small child-to-teacher ratios; strong family involvement, and screening and referral services for developmental, health or behavior problems.

When children are in early learning programs with these quality components, they require fewer special education services, are less likely to be held back in school and are more likely to be employed.

We also know they do better in math and reading, have higher graduation rates, enter the work force with higher skill levels and earn more as adults. These are outcomes that are good for Maine businesses and our state's economy.

More good news: Maine businesses do not have to wait 20 years for these returns on investment. According to the America's Edge report, quality components are key contributors to significant economic activity in our state -- today.

Every dollar invested in early learning in Maine generates a total of $1.78 in sales of local goods and services. That is an economic boost that is higher than investments in transportation, construction or even farming, fishing and forestry.

We appreciate that Gov. LePage's recently released biennial budget does not propose further state cuts to Head Start. We now encourage him and our state legislators to continue to support early learning programs and, at a minimum, maintain funding for them.

Our congressional delegation also has a role to play. We ask them to reject proposals that cut funding for Head Start, Early Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant and, if possible, provide additional resources, especially to ensure quality.

We are getting it right. Let's keep on track, both for our children's future and for Maine's economic future.

Dana Connors is president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce; Meredith Strang Burgess is CEO of Burgess Advertising, and Robert Moore is chairman and CEO of the Dead River Co.


 

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