OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Last month, I had the distinct honor of delivering the commencement speech to the Class of 2018 at Thomas College in Waterville. The audience was filled with proud parents, grandparents and friends, faculty and administrators, as well as the bright and eager faces of the graduates. It was a unique experience, and an honor to share in the day and all it represented for so many.

For my part in the graduation festivities, I tried to inject a little humor and a little wisdom. My basic message was that graduation is not an end, but a beginning. And graduation really isn’t a single event. It’s a process that people experience every day of their lives, because every day is different than the day before, and each of us grows and changes every day.

I challenged each graduate to make that growth positive and forward-moving, to remember to give back to their communities and to ask themselves when changes do come their way, “What will I do with it?”

Those are three of the basic tenets I have strived to live by in the course of my career, much of which was spent in service to our country as a member of the United States Armed Forces. These tenets have served me and my family well, and I believe they have positively affected our community, our state and our nation. I see similar possibilities for each and every college graduate this spring.

But in the back of my mind during the graduation ceremony, I worried about all of the Maine students who are not graduating and how their futures may be different, and more challenging, than the college graduates before me.

Maine’s educational system does a good job of supporting students to high school graduation. Our 87 percent high school graduation rate is one of the highest in the country. And we are within striking distance of the 90 percent high school graduation rate that Maine policymakers set as a goal for our state earlier this decade. Kudos to our teachers, school administrators and all of the other school staff who have contributed to this success.

But Maine student performance drops off after high school graduation. Data trends show us that 61 percent of Maine students enroll in college within one year of graduating from high school. Of those, 50 percent complete college within 150 percent of normal program time (three years for an associate degree and six years for a bachelor’s degree).

The advocacy group Educate Maine offers an illustration of these numbers: Of 100 Maine students who enter ninth grade, 87 of those graduate from high school. Of those 87, 53 enroll in college. Of those 53, 44 return for a second year of college. Of those 44, 32 will earn a two- or a four-year degree. So when we examine these numbers more closely – 32 out of 100 students earning a postsecondary degree – the picture changes dramatically. It certainly raises concerns and challenges, but also opportunities.

Of course, some students opt for other postsecondary programs, like those in the skilled trades. But not enough. According to Educate Maine’s 2017 Indicators Report, 43 percent of Maine adults hold a “credential of value” (a college degree, a certificate or an industry credential), yet 66 percent of high-wage, in-demand Maine job openings from 2014 to 2024 will require some level of postsecondary education. Our policymakers, educators and business leaders need to do more to address this “skills gap.”

The good news is that many are stepping up to the challenge. This year, Maine adopted a goal that 60 percent of Mainers will hold a credential of value by 2025. And I am pleased to see so many organizations, businesses and institutions dedicated to education and skills training come together under one coalition, MaineSpark, to harness their collective talents and energies to achieve this goal.

Following along life’s trajectory, the MaineSpark coalition organizes its work into four tracts: birth to sixth grade; middle school and high school; postsecondary for traditional and nontraditional students; and attracting professionals either to return to Maine, or to live and work in Maine for the first time. Each one is critically important to the success of attaining the 60 percent-by-2025 goal.

The reality is that for us to create the workforce Maine needs, we have to build a continuum of high-quality education, from pre-K through postsecondary, that includes the quality early learning that builds the foundation for social, emotional and cognitive skills, and deeper learning experiences that prepare students for success after high school.

Investing in programs to reach MaineSpark’s goal will help create that continuum, connect Mainers to good jobs and careers in our state, and help to fill the needs of Maine employers so that our economy can grow and compete by 2025 and for decades to come.