December 13, 2012

Maine Voices: The Legislature needs to embrace idea of linking education to work

The writer says Democrats need to join the governor in closing the 'skills gap' that matches jobs to workers.

By THOMAS TYLER

I read with interest the Dec. 7 article "Augusta emphasis: Skills gap education," by Steve Mistler, which covered recent statements by the new Democratic leaders in the Legislature that seem to be in agreement with Gov. LePage's education agenda of the past two years.

As a former Democrat, I am encouraged to see Democrats beginning to embrace the concept of linking education to work.

Hopefully, their actions will follow their words, as many on the left have resisted efforts to align education with careers and instead defended the status quo.

Right now, there are well over three million open jobs that American employers can't fill because the labor pool lacks the skills that these jobs require.

In his article, Mistler cites a study commissioned by Southern Maine Community College which found that almost 4,000 jobs will be left unfilled in Maine over the next five years.

Mainers are hardworking and well-educated.

But right now there is a disconnect between the types of jobs that are available and the number of people with the specific skills required to perform them.

I saw it firsthand as a manager at Bushmaster Firearms. We would have job openings but no applicants with the training necessary to be able to hit the ground running as a capable employee.

The governor has been working to close this "skills gap," conducting jobs workshops to find out firsthand from employers which skills, certifications, and degrees are lacking in the workforce.

Input from the field led to several pieces of legislation introduced during the last term.

Though I am pleased to see the Democrats finally supporting efforts to connect employers to students and jobseekers, it is nonetheless surprising because they opposed many similar actions during the past two years.

Mistler cites one such incident in his article.

Democrats on the Appropriations Committee opposed a bill to train precision machine tool operators at York County Community College because of a minor quarrel over some of the language in the bill.

Mainers need more results and less bickering in the Legislature.

When construction employers reported that they were seeing a shortage of licensed electricians, Republicans made a change to the law, allowing master electricians to supervise two apprentices rather than just one and giving young people more opportunities for a rewarding career.

Most states don't even have such restrictions in place.

The old, one-apprentice limit in Maine was imposed as a form of professional protectionism.

That protectionist spirit and special interest lobbying made its presence felt again when Democrats opposed the bill both in committee and before the Legislature as a whole, fortunately to no avail.

Next came a bill to help vocational schools by requiring that school districts pay them on time.

Again, Democrats voted against it.

Therefore, I am curious, yet cautiously optimistic, to see what Democrats intend to do in the way of closing the skills gap now that they have the majority in the Legislature.

The ball is in their court and any proposal that accomplishes the goal of connecting workers with employers, such as the ones mentioned above, will have my support.

Maine was recently named among the top 10 states in the nation for the graduation rate of its high school students.

This is a major achievement.

But our priorities need to expand beyond the traditional educational focus.

Advanced degrees, post-secondary training or vocational training during high school will solve the skills gap that Maine and America faces.

This means listening to employers.

It means implementing reforms that make it easier for young people or displaced workers to find training.

And it means helping technical, vocational and charter schools to provide young people with alternate paths to a career -- not just a job.

Education used to be seen as a Democratic issue, much like defense is commonly considered a Republican issue.

In recent years, however, Republican ideas about education -- from charter schools to checking the power of teachers' unions -- have been sweeping the nation without regards to political persuasion.

With bipartisan cooperation and by introducing our businesses to our students and workers,we can continue to shake things up in Maine. Our priorities need to expand beyond the traditional educational focus.

Rep. Thomas Tyler, R-Windham, is beginning his first term in the Maine House of Representatives.

 

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