Often we hear students ask: “Does school really matter?”

Sadly, many students believe the answer is, “Maybe not.”

Making school achievement in Maine relevant to the working world and capable of inspiring aspirations is one of the greatest challenges in keeping our local economy strong.

As students head back to school, we need to ask whether our education system is preparing young people to enter the work force with the real-world knowledge and skills that businesses need to compete. Educators, policymakers, parents and students would be wise to support models that will ensure students are prepared for both college and career.

Companies across Maine are seeking employees highly proficient not only in hard skills such as science, engineering and math, but also in the soft skills — communication, collaboration and critical thinking. A recent analysis projects 26,000 new high-wage and growth jobs in Maine over 10 years.

However, significant gaps are also forecast. During the same period, experts predict that employers will have trouble filling an additional 4,000 high-wage jobs in our state, including significant shortages of associate’s degree workers in IT, computer technology and machinist positions.

Nine of every 10 new positions created in Maine between 2008 and 2018 will require formal education beyond high school. In fact, 87 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math will require post-secondary education by 2018. All of these positions will be hard to fill when 23 percent of Maine’s high school students fail to graduate on time.

We want to ensure Maine children are ready for those new opportunities that have replaced some of our historical labor markets. We can’t allow almost one in four students to fail to graduate on time.

For those who do graduate from high school, some are unprepared for college. Recent news accounts report that 54 percent of students entering the Maine Community College System from high school need remediation; 18 percent of first-time students need remediation in the University of Maine System.

These reports state that in 2007-2008, Maine students spent $13 million on remedial education and lost $5.8 million in additional earnings because students who need remediation are less likely to graduate.

Economists tell us that education is key to developing the human capital needed for sustainable growth and security. To ensure that Maine’s businesses have the skilled work force required in the future, what is learned in the classroom must be made relevant to what is required for a career.

Luckily, innovative education programs in some of Maine’s high schools are doing just that.

Here in Portland, Casco Bay High School is challenging its students to become college and career ready by integrating a rigorous academic curriculum with career-relevant instruction — including field-based learning opportunities with professionals. Casco Bay High School boosts its students’ engagement and achievement by helping them develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, all within the context of career pathways.

Creativity and original research are encouraged. Learning is organized in a project-based approach, which helps develop team-building and communications skills.

School culture is based on strong instructor-student relationships, with high expectations placed on student behavior. Casco Bay High School complements Portland and Deering high schools with a unique alternative that benefits a portion of our Portland students.

In practice, this approach allows students to see the connection between what they learn in the classroom and how that knowledge applies to the real world. In effect, they “learn to learn.”

It is impressive to learn that at Casco Bay, about half of the seniors graduate having earned some college credit, and 100 percent of the graduates in the school’s first two senior classes were accepted to college.

Those are impressive returns. Now imagine the continuing returns for Maine and for our businesses if we expand innovative education approaches throughout the state in the years to come.

The business community knows what it needs from its work force. So as Maine moves forward on improving its education system, policymakers would be wise to support models that will better ensure 100 percent of our high school students are prepared for both college and career.

In doing so, we must create ways to both measure the development of in-demand skill sets in our students and assess the effectiveness of our education systems in developing aspirations, skills and readiness.

There is no quick fix for an outdated education system. But one thing is certain: Innovation is critical to business competitiveness, and innovation in education is paramount to ensuring a high-quality work force for our state.

Betsey Timm of Falmouth is a retired market president for Bank of America of Maine.