Friday, October 23, 2009

Workforce in the year 2020

Our local workforce investment board has a wonderful and respected member that gets quite animated about how Maine continually fails to do long-range strategic planning when it comes to fiscal matters. I can't say I disagree with him. In addition to fiscal matters, I think our state also is lacking in long-range strategic planning when it comes to its workforce, with a few exceptions.

We have begun an election cycle for governor. We are one year out from having to decide who we want to lead our state for four more years, but I don't think it's too early for the candidates to formulate a strategic vision, and communicate just what their workforce strategy might be during their four (or eight, if chosen for re-election) year tenure.

Unfortunately, not much that is coming out of the mouths of any of the candidates is making me particularly giddy at this point. Experience teaches me that not too much will change over the next 12 months, either.

You see, politicians talk in generalities. They say things like Maine's biggest challenge is "lack of jobs and opportunity." Others indicate that all Maine needs to move from the bottom tier of states, to possibly the middle tier, is "more accountability in Augusta." We hear others blather on about "cut, cut, cut, cut, cut," as if cutting government spending (and taxes) to the bone will magically deliver prosperity. Then, there is the belief held by many that merely running government like a business will lead the Pine Tree State to the economic promised land.

Maine does not have a vaunted work ethic, at least in any greater capacity than the other 49 states of the union; yet we've heard the current governor and members of his administration regularly trumpet this myth for the past eight years. What Maine has is a workforce that was predominantly skilled for an economy that was resource-based, and heavily oriented towards manufacturing--basically, a 20th century mindset towards work. The skills required for success in the 21st century are heavily weighted towards information, and technology. Further, in speaking with employers on a daily basis, I hear them indicate that work ethic, or the basic skills of being able to show up, on time, as scheduled for work, is not a given, at least in the five counties that I travel throughout, in Central/Western Maine. I don't think it's any different in the other 11 counties, represented by the three other LWIBs.

While it might be tempting, given that our unemployment rate was 8.6 percent in August, to think that Maine's workforce will be sufficient for the future. In reality, Maine, like the other 49 states that make up the U.S. will be looking at a labor shortage--projected at 30 million skilled and educated workers over the next thirty years, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, cited in a report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the face of these numbers, the Foundation has committed to doubling the number of low-income students earning post-secondary degrees, or credentials that hold genuine value--basically leading to employment in a sector where jobs are being created.

Maine can learn some things from this report, which focused on successful programs that had both significant employer involvement, as well as employment connected to a career track.

Additionally, certain common characteristics were apparent in the successful program that were highlighted (see report pages 10-12). Things like flexibility, partnerships, connections to local employers, helping students learn and gain skills while they continued to work, all were important determinants of success.

Some of these same lessons (particularly the value of partnerships, leveraging resources, and connecting with employers) have been learned in Central/Western Maine with WorkReady, Next Steps programs, our recent CNC Precision Manufacturing training at CMCC, as well as other initiatives developed by our LWIB.

Maine's four workforce boards are closely aligned with their regional workforce needs, as well as having "boots on the ground," so they can offer some sense of what's needed for workforce solutions in the short-term, as well as offering a more strategic vision for the future.

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