Maine needs serious solutions to address what are arguably the two biggest economic challenges our state faces: the shortage of people in our workforce and their skill level.

Our workforce challenges have reached a near-crisis level. Maine is one of only two states where deaths outnumber births. Our population is aging, and our workforce along with it. Additionally, employers cannot find workers with the skills required to fill open jobs today.

If we do not act now, the workforce shortage and skills gap will become more significant over time. Maine is on the edge of a cliff.

Quality early learning programs like pre-K can help bring us back from that edge. Reaching children early in life with quality early learning programs is crucial to building a strong future workforce. These programs are a proven solution that give kids a solid foundation from which to learn, grow and succeed.

I know from my own experiences as a young child in Head Start that high-quality early childhood learning programs can make a crucial difference in helping to develop the critical skills that kids need to start school ready to learn so they can do better in all grades, graduate from high school and, for many, pursue postsecondary training and education. It is a critical building block as Maine works to achieve our goal that 60 percent of adults have a credential of value by 2025.

Recognizing that access to high-quality public preschool is key to a strong future workforce, Maine has made wise investments in improving access in recent years. Seventy-five percent of Maine school districts now offer some form of public preschool, which currently serves 44 percent of our 4-year-olds. Maine can do even better by making sure pre-K is offered in every Maine school district.

This will especially help reach kids in economically disadvantaged families. These children are an important part of Maine’s economic future. We have a responsibility to create opportunities for all Maine people to succeed, and, in terms of our workforce, we cannot afford to leave any child behind.

Yet we currently fall short of that goal. A recent Educate Maine report indicated a significant achievement gap in Maine. Children from lower-income families are less likely to participate in early childhood education programs. They also are less likely to be proficient in reading and math, graduate from high school or successfully pursue further education or a career after high school.

Consider these statistics:

Thirteen percent of Maine children live in poverty.

Six percent live in extreme poverty.

Nearly half of all Maine schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Seventy-three percent of all Maine children under the age of 6 have all available parents or guardians in the workforce.

 Only 36 percent of children from families with income below 200 percent of the poverty level are enrolled in preschool, compared with 49 percent of those with higher family income.

Greater access to quality pre-K can help close the achievement gap so Maine’s economically disadvantaged students are not already behind their peers when they begin their K-12 education. This access will help put these kids on a better track to do well in school, stay out of trouble, move on to higher education and, later, thrive in a competitive workforce and eventually meet our workforce challenges.

Investments in quality pre-K also save money. Over the long haul, each child served can save society a net $34,000 on average, thanks to reduced crime, less grade repetition, less need for special education, higher high-school graduation rates and greater future earnings.

We all have a stake in making sure every Maine child has strong opportunities to succeed. Pre-K access in every Maine school district is a big part of the solution to helping kids get a great start.

Prioritizing further state investments in pre-K eventually will help grow and strengthen Maine’s workforce, improve our economic competitiveness and help our people and communities prosper. It also is the right thing to do for Maine’s kids. We should not leave a single one behind. Nor can we afford to.