As business owners, we know how tough it is to find qualified workers in today’s economy. The state’s dire worker shortage fueled by more retirees and low unemployment is affecting dozens of industries, from manufacturing to health care.

So as the state budget is debated in Augusta, let’s not forget about prioritizing workforce development. We know firsthand that it offers a direct path from low-wage work to skilled employment and allows businesses to grow, creating new jobs in the process.

State lawmakers have the opportunity right now to make strategic investments in programs specifically designed to fill the workforce gaps in major industries.

The smartest way to do that? Invest in our community colleges.

Both of our companies rely on the solid technical skills that graduates of Maine’s community colleges bring to our workplaces. And both of our companies have partnered with the colleges to develop targeted job-training programs to help us meet our immediate workforce needs. Our experience tells us that those who complete these programs – whether short-term training or an associate degree – will be ready to contribute on Day One. Increasingly, many of them are stepping into jobs that have been sitting vacant.

Employers all across Maine know this to be true, and they know that the community colleges are quick to respond. This includes business large and small and in all parts of the state.

For instance, Southern Maine Community College has a new Construction Institute on the South Portland campus and a new manufacturing training center at its Brunswick campus. Both have been developed to meet the specific workforce needs of local employers.

York County Community College continues to expand its precision machining technology degree program in Sanford. The vast majority of students in the program will have a job waiting for them before they even finish.

To address serious workforce shortages in health care, the colleges are working with providers across the state to expand programs in nursing and in medical assisting and other allied health professions.

What the community colleges are doing in partnership with these and many other employers is working. But we still have jobs we can’t fill, and that means the community college system needs to expand its programs and services.

They are asking for $2.5 million in the first year of the budget and $5 million in the second year to create a bank of short-term, non-degree credentials for Mainers who are looking for a hand up to improve their livelihoods. The funds would also be used to create certificate and degree programs in high-demand occupations in vital Maine industries such as health care, manufacturing, construction and hospitality.

To us, this is a smart investment in institutions that have been delivering for years.

Let’s build on that success and look to tomorrow. Let’s help create a skilled workforce so Mainers can earn a decent paycheck, lift their families out of poverty, be a part of local industry and help build a robust economy in the state.

At R.J. Grondin & Sons, we have openings that require only short-term training in Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and basic skills. At Elmet Technologies, many of our workers need experience and education in two-year technical programs like precision machining, electromechanical technology and industrial maintenance. Investing in the community college system is investing at all levels of education – from months-long job training to one- and two-year programs for a certificate or an associate degree. There’s a path for everyone.

Supporting the community colleges now is the best return on investment the state can make when it comes to workforce development, and offers a life-changing first step for people across Maine.

It’s a win-win.