As Maine emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, our state’s business, education and civic leaders are grappling daily with how to make the right decisions to ensure future health and economic prosperity. From my vantage point, informed by roles in both business and education, it is clear that education is one of the most important investments Maine can make for the future of our people and our collective economic recovery.

Award winners and University Provost Joseph Szakas are seen on screens in the control room broadcasting the University of Maine at Augusta’s annual convocation last Sept. 25 in the Susan and Barry Farber Forum in Augusta. The last year has shown us that remote learning makes possible nontraditional learning modalities. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Economic growth depends on a skilled workforce with the training and credentials required to meet the needs of our state’s current and future employers. Maine is facing a workforce shortage across a number of important industries, including health care, construction, technology and education. A number of factors are contributing to this shortage, from our aging workforce reaching retirement, to slow population growth, to the evolution of traditional industries adapting to emerging global markets. Maine has an immediate need to attract, retain and cultivate a skilled workforce by leveraging every opportunity to engage new residents and build talent beginning with our youngest citizens. Times of crisis can spur the kind of innovation and collaboration that hold tremendous promise to adapt education models to meet the needs of our time.

What are some possibilities on the horizon? Now that higher education need not be rooted in one place, expect to see increased flexibility and non-traditional learning modalities. Online learning opens the door to reach ever more Maine people, whether through two- and four-year degree programs or short-term trainings informed by real-time employer needs. Campuses throughout the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System can push forward on efforts to link learning pathways and increase transportability of credits, only further enhancing the accessibility and value of our public institutions. The Roux Institute’s close partnerships with Maine businesses and emphasis on new technologies will also broaden the array of rich learning experiences statewide. It is no accident that the state’s 10-year Economic Development Strategy and the report from the 2020 Economic Recovery Committee put talent development at the forefront of strategies for Maine in both the short and long term. Our strategic investment in education now will leverage the most return on every dollar invested.

There are important considerations to ensure that our efforts are successful. First, inclusion must be a priority for education and workforce investments. Maine must leverage the talents of our citizens from all demographic backgrounds if we are to power a vibrant, globally competitive economy. Education institutions and employers alike must pursue targeted actions, such as equity audits, to ensure our efforts are truly inclusive. Second, strong partnerships are critical. Business, education and community leaders must come to the table together to identify current talent development challenges, areas for growth and new methods of collaboration. We must work collaboratively toward the common goal of making Maine a top learning destination that pays dividends for students, businesses and the community.

A recent policy brief from Educate Maine and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce – titled Higher Education in Transition: Opportunities and Challenges for Maine – emphasizes the many ways in which Maine’s postsecondary institutions and policymakers can meet the needs of this moment. The brief outlines the importance of making high-quality online learning available to all; building stronger partnerships between education and business that lead to more short-term credentials and experiential learning opportunities; valuing higher education as a strategic investment, and keeping equity at the forefront of our efforts. The report provides a roadmap for the types of practices and policies Maine needs to prioritize while we address the economic upheaval brought on by the pandemic.

Many great individuals and organizations have been working tirelessly for a year now to deliver high-quality education and training during one of the most difficult crises we will face in our lifetimes. Now that the end is in sight, let’s take this opportunity to leverage our learning from the past year and reimagine what is possible for postsecondary education in Maine. With vision, innovation and collaboration, the future for Maine’s skilled workforce is bright.

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