Bridging our ‘skills gap’ long-term

Author icon: Head shot of Commissioner Stephen BowenMaine employers from all sectors of the economy came to the Blaine House in Augusta last week with a clear message, though not the one most might have expected.

The economy is slow, but we have job openings, the employers told Gov. Paul LePage. More than 20,000 Maine people are receiving unemployment benefits, but we can’t find the workers we need, they said.

In other words, what we have in Maine isn’t only a jobs deficit. It’s a skills deficit, too. We have more available jobs in some sectors than we do workers with the skills needed to do them.

What that means for our schools is, we need to make every effort to prepare all students for college and 21st-century careers.

For instance, our schools can do a better job of exposing students to potential careers throughout their time in school. And they need to align the skills taught in the classroom with the skills in demand at hospitals and machine shops, in wood lots and engineering firms.

Beyond mere exposure, we need to establish clear and affordable pathways that students can follow if they’re interested in particular careers.

A student interested in becoming an electrician, for example, needs to know which high school courses offer the best preparation. During high school, that student also needs access to information about what comes next: Which electrical engineering courses are needed to become licensed, and which institutions offer them? Which requirements can a student satisfy while still in high school?

That level of alignment will involve high schools and career and technical education centers collaborating with Maine’s community colleges and universities so they’re each aware of what the other is doing, so their expectations are aligned, and so students can end up in the postsecondary settings that suit them.

Fortunately, we have educators in the field already trying to do just that.

This fall, 16 students from Hermon High School and United Technologies Center in Bangor are piloting an initiative meant to bridge the preparedness gap between high school, postsecondary education and careers.

This pilot program, appropriately called “Bridge Year,” aligns high school classes, courses at Bangor’s world-class career and technical center and degree programs at Eastern Maine Community College and the University of Maine.

The four Bangor-area institutions are working together to embed consistent, Innovation Engineering principles in their coursework so students interested in related careers have a clear pathway to earning the necessary degrees and accruing experience in the engineering field.

Many Bridge Year students will ultimately earn associate’s degrees within a year of earning their high school diplomas. And the teachers and administrators dedicated to making this work want the program to grow and become a model that can be replicated elsewhere in Maine.

When faced with a challenge, our educators will respond. That’s how we’ll address our skills gap long-term.

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