SOUTH PORTLAND – One of the most interesting things during the recent election was the lack of focus on higher education.

It is very apparent that one strategic driver all candidates focused on was creating jobs, yet they failed to articulate the importance of higher education to achieve this goal.

Passion for Maine

During my 25 years at Wright Express, we have undergone six ownership changes. Each change created the fear of being either merged or partially integrated with the new owner. Today we are a proud Maine-based, publicly traded New York Stock Exchange company, with greater control of our destiny. We have grown to almost 600 associates in Maine out of almost 900 employees.

As we grow, the ability to bring more jobs to Maine is compromised by the lack of available talent.

Higher Education Vital

Earlier in this decade, the Brookings Report illuminated the inequity that Maine underfunds higher education 9 percent below the national average and below almost all the 11 rural states.

But the Envision Maine Report reflects that Maine is funding almost every other state-funded government program above the national or rural average, which equates to approximately $1 billion of overspending.

We have failed to properly fund higher ed while other states found ways to fund higher ed at a higher level than Maine, while controlling other funded programs.

Like all Mainers, I don’t believe we want to be average, we want to lead.

Involvement by Wright Express

We are very involved at the University of Southern Maine, which is our primary source of college graduates in the state.

George Hogan, our chief information officer, serves on the advisory board for School of Applied Science, Engineering and Technology; David Maxsimic, executive vice president of sales and marketing, serves on the School of Business advisory board, and I am chairman of the USM Board of Visitors. Since 2000 we have funded over $350,000 for scholarships at USM.

The current system, however, cannot adequately support our human capital needs. For example, we get strong talent in the information technology arena, but can’t get enough talent to support the demand for our business.

Out of our 150 IT jobs, fewer than 15 percent come from the Maine university system. The lack of talent has forced us to open an IT office in Amesbury, Mass.

Instead of growing jobs in Maine and keeping our professionals in Maine, we now look to Massachusetts and New Hampshire to fill our talent needs. Our preference is to bring jobs to Maine so we can have control of our operations, but the reality may force us to divert more jobs to our other operations.

University of Southern Maine

As chair of the Board of Visitors at USM, I have the opportunity to work with President Selma Botman.

She is student-centric and focused, and has reached out to regional high schools, balanced the budget for the last two years and paid back the University System three years in advance on the loan it gave USM to fund budget shortfalls.

She has reorganized USM with an eye on creating schools of distinction. We are fortunate to have someone of her caliber running USM. I’m confident that if we provide her with the right resources, she’ll develop our local talent into exactly the type of workforce that Maine companies need to become successful.

That brings us back to the inequity we find our state in regarding the funding of higher education, especially as it relates to USM.

First, USM finds itself financially hampered by an outdated state funding formula set 40 years ago, when USM was primarily a teachers’ college and companies like Wright Express, IDEXX, National Semiconductor and Fairchild didn’t exist.

Unum, L.L. Bean, TD Bank and Hannaford were all very different companies then and had different needs.

Second, the Envision Maine data indicate Maine is below the national average in funding higher education by 18 percent, which means that USM would have almost $8 million more to fund its educational needs if the state funded higher education at the national average.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Maine needs to create more private sector jobs to keep our best and brightest in the state so the state can prosper.

I ask our newly elected governor, Paul Lepage, and all legislators to make increased funding of higher education a focal point and an imperative for this administration and legislative session.

Do whatever has to be done to re-engineer the system, demonstrate conviction and boldness and abstain from partisan politics.

As they determine the state’s funding priorities, they should properly fund our greatest strategic asset, higher education.

Wright Express remains committed to assisting in this effort so we can bring more jobs to Maine, not move more jobs outside the state.