Politics

March 14, 2013

Special Maine panel unveils proposals for closing 'skills gap'

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A bill proposing $11 million in job training initiatives was introduced Thursday by a special legislative committee that's focused on closing Maine's "skills gap."

The 'skills gap' bill would:

Part A: Create a seamless credit transfer system between the University of Maine System and Maine Community College System. Requires schools to develop a common course numbering system. Financial impact: None.

Part B: Fund four new degree programs in the Maine Community College System. Financial impact: $320,000 in each year of the two-year budget.

Part C: Provide a one-time $2.3 million appropriation to the University of Maine System, to match $2.3 million from the system, for scholarships for adults with some credits to complete their degrees.

Part D: Establish a 19-member Task Force on Adult Learners, to help adults with some post-secondary education complete degrees or professional certificate. Financial impact: Per diem compensation for members.

Part E: Provide additional funding to the Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community to develop and coordinate work force development training and services statewide. Financial impact: $300,000 in each year of the budget.

Part F: Provide $200,000 in additional funding for Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, to be matched by funding from the business community. Financial impact: $100,000 in each year of the budget.

Part G: Provide additional funding to the Maine Community College System for the Maine Quality Centers program for additional training at small businesses. Financial impact: $125,000 in each year of the budget.

Part H: Require the election of members of career and technical education regional cooperative boards. Financial impact: None.

Part I: Provide the Department of Labor with $1.16 million for the Maine Apprenticeship Program.

Part J: Provide funding to establish the Maine Industry Partnerships initiative in the Department of Labor. The department would track and publish high-priority occupations, identify training needs, align resources between departments and employers. Create a committee to advise the department and the State Workforce Board. Provide staffing assistance to businesses and work with various state departments to develop job training and education curriculum to bolster worker skills. Financial impact: $1 million in each year of the budget.

Part K: Create the Maine Skills Academy and establish a 14-member board. The academy would evaluate and validate various forms of skills and qualifications a worker earns after certification or a degree program. Financial impact: None.

Part L: Provide funding to the community college system to reduce waiting lists. Priority given to reducing backlogs at Southern Maine Community College and York County Community College. Financial impact: $2 million in each year of the budget.

Part M: Require the Education Coordinating Committee, composed of higher-education leaders, to meet quarterly, and expand membership to include representatives from education organizations and associations. Financial impact: None.

The committee isn't necessarily endorsing the proposals, but simply putting them forward for a broader debate in the Legislature, said Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, co-chairman of the Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future.

"The committee is very cognizant of the cost of these proposals, and realistically, they will not all pass," said Goodall, D-Richmond. "The committee knows and realizes that we have to use the taxpayers' money wisely."

L.D. 90 includes an additional $4.9 million for the Maine Community College System and another $3.2 million for the Department of Labor.

A public hearing on the bill will be held Monday. The bill eventually will have to go to the Legislature's budget-writing committee.

Workforce development is a legislative priority for both Democrats and Republicans. The special committee was the first policy initiative announced by the newly elected Democratic majority in the Legislature.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has lamented the skills gap. His spokeswoman did not return calls for comment Thursday on the proposals.

The proposals were compiled after the committee heard weeks of presentations by business, policy and education leaders and got their suggestions for the best way for the state to support or expand workforce development.

Common themes included streamlining and marketing existing programs, increasing cooperation across state departments and establishing a training pipeline to high-wage, high-demand jobs.

An estimated 3,863 jobs will go unfilled between now and 2018, according to a report commissioned by Southern Maine Community College and done last year by Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland

The report projected that Maine will suffer "a severe shortage of workers" in computer, information technology and precision manufacturing industries if Maine does not beef up training and education in those fields.

At the same time, educators say they are under financial constraints.

The funding proposed for the Maine Community College System "is such welcome news," said John Fitzsimmons, president of the system. "This is the first investment to increase our enrollment in 10 years. This could not be more timely."

He said the community college system, after growing 83 percent over 10 years, reached capacity last year. The school turned away students in 86 programs last year, and was anticipating flat enrollment this fall, he said.

A $4 million infusion would allow Maine's community colleges to hire more full-time faculty and add 500 students.

Another proposal would give the University of Maine System a one-time $2.3 million appropriation, to be matched by the university system, to establish a scholarship for adults to complete their degrees.

"Something like that ($4.6 million) could have a significant impact," said Ryan Low, executive director of government affairs for the University of Maine System.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said it's a critical time to focus on job training.

"From my perspective, it's really long overdue," said Langley, who taught culinary arts for 27 years at Hancock County Technical Center and serves on the Legislature's Education Committee.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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