Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Building our future workforce, one program at a time

[WorkReady graduates-Front (L-R): Danielle Ellsworth, Tony Willette, Star Cunningham, Jackolin Gessner, Stacey Griffin; Rear (L-R): Joe Hayes/training facilitator, Aaron Young, Karena Knowles, Bobby Young, Samantha Waterhouse, Amanda Baxter, Jennifer Winkley, Scott Keister/computer instructor]

[Training facilitator, Joe Hayes, addressing graduates]

[Joe Hayes, Jackolin Gessner and Star Cunningham, enjoying a festive moment at Friday's graduation ceremony]

In light of an article that appeared in this morning’s Portland Press Herald, about Maine’s incomes lagging the rest of the nation, I wanted to share a few thoughts about why the workforce board, here in Central/Western Maine, is on the right path, in my opinion. Also, I want to share why I’m so passionate about the work that I’m privileged to be part of, in the arena of workforce development and in particular, my involvement with programs like the WorkReady™ Credential program and Next Steps training.

On Friday, I attended the graduation ceremony for the inaugural WorkReady™ pilot in Augusta, held at Capital Area Technical Center. Eleven trainees received credentials, signifying their successful completion of the WorkReady™ curriculum and its components. This training also included an additional 20 hours of computer applications, in addition to the 60 hours of soft skills that the curriculum is oriented towards. This program is the first one to include workplace computer applications as part of receiving the credential.

In the Press Herald article, by Edward Murphy titled, “Mainer’s personal incomes lag behind the nation,” our state ranked 41st in income growth in 2007, after ranking finishing 46th in this area in 2006, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

For Christopher (Kit) St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, it’s pretty simple why Maine’s income growth has stagnated.

“The rewards in the national economy have been to the high end," said St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy. "We don't have the high end.”

Maine’s aging population is part of the issue, as retirees, living on fixed incomes, drag down income figures. Also, compounding the issue is the loss of jobs in sectors like manufacturing, which pays well and the replacement of living wage jobs with low-wage service sector employment. This also leads to the downward spiral of decreased tax revenue, leading to budget shortfalls and the attendant legislative hand wringing and finger-pointing that’s accompanied the current budget cycle.

I’m not really interested in hand wringing, or finger-pointing. What I am interested in is taking perfectly capable, eligible members of our workforce and helping them maximize their potential. There is no greater loss to Maine and our nation, than someone wallowing in low-wage, low-skill work, becoming increasingly beaten down, losing their spark and eventually, just giving up.

In my opinion, WorkReady™ is the foundational first step towards re-invigorating someone’s quest for meaningful employment. By establishing a firm platform upon which additional employer-specific training can be added to, it is possible to take someone who has been stuck in the psychic spiral that accompanies dead-end employment, without sufficient wages and lacking benefits and jumpstart their work life and offer them hope again.

What I found exciting about Friday’s graduation and the group of trainees that completed WorkReady™, is that they have been prepared, on the front end, with the foundational job skills that will allow them to access jobs that can be part of a career ladder. With additional training, programs through Maine’s Community College System, or pursuing a four-year degree program, these graduates of WorkReady have access to pathways for future success.

While WorkReady™ continues to gain support among employers, there are still many that know nothing about the program, particularly in regions beyond the five counties served by our organization. I continue to market the program to as many groups and individual employers as I can. My recent Op-ed, about the importance of middle-skills for Maine is another area that I’m becoming more active with—lobbying about our long-term strategy in our region. In fact, I think that what is being proposed here in Central/Western Maine is a model for consideration in other areas of the state.

We’ll continue to battle, here in Central/Western Maine, attempting to push our agenda forward. We also welcome the opportunity to be included at the table in conversations that are taking place, about Maine’s future, as workforce development needs to be part of any long-range strategic vision for the future of the state.

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