Recently Gov. LePage held a Jobs Summit with Maine employers. The headlines following the summit told of the governor’s assertion that thousands of jobs in Maine are going unfilled because, as a state, we are not aligning our education and training to areas where the needs are greatest.

Last Wednesday, Southern Maine Community College released a report titled “Closing the Gap,” which supported the governor’s point.

The report looked at 26,000 new growth jobs over the next 10 years and found that there could be a shortfall of more than 4,000 workers if Maine (and presumably SMCC) doesn’t better focus its degree offerings.

To illustrate the nature of this jobs gap, the information technology sector has gotten much press. The “Closing the Gap” report estimates that over the next 10 years about 1,800 additional workers with associate degrees in information technology will be needed, but only a few more than 200 Mainers are expected to gain these credentials.

This is why business leaders like Mike Dubyak, the CEO of Wright Express, and Corky Ellis, CEO of Kepware, are working with the state’s university and community college systems to strengthen degree and certificate offerings in IT and computer science.

The kinds of initiatives that Dubyak and Ellis are supporting are important for Maine’s future competitiveness.

Yet the problem of a mismatch between Maine’s unemployed and current job opportunities is not going to go away.

The Maine Department of Labor has done excellent work in tracking the nature of Maine’s structural unemployment and the nature of unfilled job opportunities. Glenn Mills, director of Economic Research, has been quoted as indicating that much of Maine’s unemployment has come from the loss of old-line manufacturing such as shoes and textiles and from the natural (and healthy) tendency of large manufacturers like paper mills to become more productive over time.

In addition, the recent economic downturn has driven job losses in construction and retail. It is not easy for most laid-off workers in these sectors to be qualified for jobs in growth areas such as IT or health care.

The state talks a lot about providing retraining opportunities, but becoming a person with job-worthy IT skills is not possible for the typical 50-plus factory worker who has been laid off. There are exceptions, of course. A few years back, the computer technician who serviced my PC told me he had been a diesel mechanic.

Seeing the growth in computer technicians, he put himself through an associate degree program in computer science.

With better education we can chip away at improving the skills of the unemployed, but this model takes time – years, in most cases.

We talk a lot about job training for the unemployed, but the statistics on success are pretty abysmal.

Aside from difficulties acquiring new skills, unemployed workers are much less likely to be willing to relocate than in the past. Some of this reluctance comes from family and community ties, and some comes from having a housing market that makes it difficult to sell a home.

Programs that are effective in retraining tend to be expensive – combining lots of focused training in a given field with lots of coaching and support through the job-hunting process itself.

India has emerged as a leader in job-training approaches. Many of its leading firms have established their own “in-house universities.” Recently the Indian government has asked business to design an ambitious program to try to further address the skills gap.

The program, entirely run by the private sector, will be under the auspices of a new National Skill Development Corporation.

The U.S. may be able to learn from this program. However, it is also likely that programs such as this one in India may simply exacerbate our problem by making it even easier to outsource more knowledge work to India.

Make no mistake, Maine and the U.S. have an enormous problem with the skills gap and the chronically unemployed. I am confident that we in Maine will be able, over time, to address the skills gap. Better-focused education coupled with the fact that Maine is a great place to live and raise a family will work to our benefit.

I am less sanguine over our ability to convert former factory or construction workers into IT technicians.

In this area, it would be helpful to find models that work and try them here in Maine. The recent debate on this is a healthy and needed one. But the answers will take a frustrating amount of time and money.

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant located in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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