The key to Maine’s future economic growth is clear – educate, train and attract young people, both to replace the aging workers leaving our labor force by the tens of thousands each year and to fill the new positions that market and technological changes create each year.

Unfortunately, the links between our educational institutions and our employers are not today the models of effective communication they need to be to achieve these goals.

Too many employers complain of the inability to find the workers they need. They cite a gap between the technical and social skills and attitudes job candidates bring to the labor market and those they need for success. Yet most of these businesses do not apply the same principles of supply-chain management – define needs more clearly and work more closely with current and potential vendors – that they use with material suppliers.

At the same time, too many educators cite declining enrollments, growing social dysfunction in homes and increasing budgetary pressures as reasons for not reaching out to employers.

In this environment of disconnection and finger pointing, therefore, it is encouraging to find two examples of educational institutions and employers working closely to overcome the traditional barriers that separate them.

The first is Tree Street Youth Center in Lewiston. Named for the neighborhood that encompasses Ash, Pine, Walnut, Spruce and Birch streets, the center is “strategically located on the walk route to the elementary, middle and high schools in one of the state’s most socioeconomically challenged communities.”

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Over 65 percent of the youth in the center’s neighborhood come from immigrant or refugee families, and 99 percent live at or below the poverty level. Each school day, the center serves between 120 and 150 young people with tutoring and homework help, supplemental language instruction and coaching and personal assistance with problems arising from sociocultural adjustments and personal impulse control.

Operated by a small staff and an inspired cadre of upper-grade mentors and supported by community volunteers and a wide range of area businesses, the center has served over 800 students since its founding in 2011. Of its regular attendees, 100 percent of those eligible have graduated from high school. And of those who have applied to institutions of higher education, 95 percent have been accepted.

Tree Street students, from its youngest attendees to its oldest “branches” mentors, learn the skills of communication, collaboration, personal motivation and adjustment to unfamiliar and challenging social situations: precisely the skills so many employers complain that many of their job applicants lack.

If Maine is to grow from within, we must treat the fastest-growing segment of our population – our immigrant and refugee communities – as a treasured resource to be understood, nurtured and connected to every opportunity our labor market might provide.

A second example of an educational program reaching out to the business community in a creative way is to be found at Thornton Academy in Saco.

Recognizing that the traditional academic track is not suited to all students and that the traditional vocational track was not meeting the needs of many local manufacturers, the school reached out to a number of local businesses with known “skills gap” problems: most notably Arundel Machine and Pratt & Whitney. Together they set up a program that combines:

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An online learning module developed and certified by the National Tooling and Machining Association.

A professor at Southern Maine Community College willing to bring Thornton students into a college machine shop “lab” during off-hours for basic equipment training.

Employers willing to confront the obstacles of traditional shop floor culture and liability concerns to bring high school students into the workplace to see how machining works in the “real world.”

With companies paying licensing fees for online learning tools and offering part-time and summer jobs to enrollees, the community college providing access to machines and lab space during available hours and Thornton Academy paying for an additional instructor and a van to shuttle students between their learning and working locales, the program has proven a great success.

Virtually all the students who’ve passed the online certification process and completed the academic and work experience requirements have been offered full-time, good-paying jobs. Thornton Headmaster Rene Menard told me that some of the parents of enrolled students have asked if they could sign up.

These are but two programs of innovative business-education linkages that I’ve come across. I am sure there are others. All should be celebrated, encouraged, emulated and expanded.

Whatever the costs of such programs – and they are considerable – they pale by comparison with the costs of avoiding the only path to a prosperous Maine future: expanding the ways we link the worlds of education and work into a seamless and continuous process of learning.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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