Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mixing workforce and technology

These are challenging times. With the economy in a nosedive, and Mainers hunkering down for 3+ months of winter (and then mud season), it’s natural for some to be pessimistic. Personally, rather than be pessimistic, I’d prefer to look for reasons to be hopeful, recognizing that this economic dark season shall pass, believing in the cyclical nature of the economy and markets.

One way to look at this downturn is choosing to see it as an opportunity to plan and make provisions for the recession’s end. An area that some are choosing to focus on is the area of workforce development, recognizing that it ties directly into economic prosperity.

The city of Waterville is fortunate to have a group of people that see the future of the greater-Waterville area as tied to strengthening its workforce. In a state where the population is aging, and where far too many young people are choosing to start their work careers elsewhere, having a regional strategy for workforce/economic development is key to future growth and job creation, not to mention being able to staff current levels of need in healthcare, skilled trades and manufacturing, and the possibility of new jobs tied to a clean and green economy.

Kim Lindlof, president and CEO of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, John Butera, executive director of the Central Maine Growth Council, and Executive Director, Ken Young, Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, head up the business community’s focus on strengthening Waterville’s workforce for the future.

Recently, this leadership trio spearheaded an effort to launch the community’s first offering of WorkReady, an innovative soft skills training program that has had success in other communities in the state, most notably Lewiston/Auburn. Butera noted at Tuesday’s meeting of the Chamber’s Business & Retention Committee that the emphasis in economic development circles has shifted noticeably towards developing the workforce.

“Ten to 15 years ago, economic developers were focused on infrastructure, real estate, incentives, etc. as key components to growing regional economies. That has shifted dramatically, as human resources (i.e. workforce development) have become THE driving force behind a region's ability to move forward and transform their economy,” said Butera.

Communities like Waterville that understand the importance workforce development in their economic growth mix, will be well-positioned in 2009/2010, when Maine’s economy picks up again.

Given the city’s prime location relative to I-95, it’s solid downtown infrastructure, the great potential represented by the Hathaway Creative Center, two major healthcare institutions, along with Colby College and Kennebec Community College just up the road, Waterville is a community worth considering for business growth and expansion. It is also going to be a place in Maine where young people might be attracted to, as evidenced by trends elsewhere. Add to that the commitment of members of the community like Lindlof, Butera, and Young, as well as Waterville Main Street's Shannon Haines, and Waterville bears watching, and even some investment by prudent and forward-looking investors.


Speaking of economic growth and moving Maine’s future forward, high speed internet access continues be problematic for large portions of the state. In a 21st century world, having substandard technological access only compounds some of the state’s other issues.

Recently, PC Magazine listed ISP speeds in New England, and Maine was next to last, just ahead of tiny Vermont. While it was nice not to finish dead last in New England, raising Maine’s surf speed to the national average might be a worthwhile goal (Maine is at 427 Kbps and the national average is 527; Connecticut, which is first in New England is at surf speeds of 716 Kbps). Also finding a way to bring all parts of the state along to where high speed internet access is both available, and affordable would be laudable. [Source: The Daily/Mainebiz (scroll to bottom)]

Too often, rural areas of the state lack broadband access, as well as affordable options and are forced to rely on outmoded dial-up access to the Internet. Equally unacceptable is that large swaths of densely populated communities like Lewiston, including downtown, also lack affordable options for broadband. Why is this? Possibly, it’s the lack of ROI for telecommunications companies that ought to be making investments in residential broadband, but decide that the socioeconomic level doesn’t warrant it—i.e. “bang for their buck.” That reason doesn’t address the need for broadband, irrespective of income level, however, which is a much broader discussion that this post won’t address. It also affects businesses that might want to locate downtown, and could provide some needed economic stimulus and jobs to the heart of the city.

One possible solution might be a state-wide network of Broadband over power-lines (BPL), which could be powered eventually by clean energy. There are still variables and logistics to work out, but this holds promise for rural states, like Maine, in solving their issues of state-wide broadband access.

One network model that has some possibilities for Maine would provide asynchronous broadband (same up/download speed constant) at a speed of 512 Kbps. This would begin small, in select areas and could grow as the network expands and a broadband backbone is developed. Eventually, it is possible to grow this state-wide. Wind power might factor into the equation for powering this.

A group in rural Franklin County, Western Mountains Broadband Cooperative, is currently at work on the logistics of making this happen. Stay tuned for more details in early 2009.

[Note: FairPoint Communications, a new telecomm player to Maine, is also looking at ways to expand broadband options in the Mid-Maine area. FMI information, contact KVCOG, or fill out this online inquiry form.]

Another local initiative with a great deal of promise is the Downtown Education Collaborative’s (DEC) Digital Divide project.

DEC is a local partnership consisting of seven academic and community institutions. They recently opened a new storefront education center at 219 Lisbon Street, located in the heart of downtown Lewiston, an area where computer and internet access is at a premium.

DEC’s mission will be to pursue education partnerships in and with Lewiston’s downtown residential community. Its members include the four colleges of the Lewiston-Auburn area — Andover College, Bates College, Central Maine Community College, and the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston Auburn College — as well as the Lewiston Public Library, Lewiston Adult Education and Empower Lewiston.

Recognizing that few residents of downtown Lewiston own computers, and that the cost of buying a computer, not to mention maintaining it is cost-prohibitive to many residents of downtown, DEC saw creating computer access as a natural fit with their mission.

When DEC became aware that there were two fully functioning computer labs, with relevant software and Internet access, located in the downtown area (representing 31 computers), but were often not accessible due to staffing issues, they took it upon themselves to remedy this.

By helping to provide staffing, DEC has been able to ensure that both labs are accessible five days a week. DEC has been able to facilitate staffing, which provides technical help, as well as one-on-one assistance and mentoring. This has helped residents with online job searches, resume writing, getting training on how to use Microsoft applications, learning keyboarding skills, setting up email accounts, and using Rosetta Stone (language) software.

Working in Maine will be revisiting this exciting project in the near future.

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