The first policy pitch by the Democratic-led Legislature could be right in Gov. Paul LePage’s wheelhouse.
The Democratic majority has yet to introduce initiatives that it plans to pursue over the next two years. But the Legislature’s new leaders have been telegraphing an emphasis on the state’s so-called skills gap between available jobs and a work force that’s unqualified to fill them.
Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland and House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick discussed the issue Wednesday in speeches at the State House, hinting that the first bill of the session may be an attempt to address it.
If such legislation materializes, it could represent Democrats’ first policy outreach with appeal to Republicans, including LePage.
More importantly, it could address a problem that may leave an estimated 3,863 jobs unfilled between now and 2018, according to a report commissioned by Southern Maine Community College.
The report, done last year by Planning Decisions Inc. of South Portland, projected that Maine will suffer “a severe shortage of workers” in computer, information technology and precision manufacturing industries if Maine does not beef up training and educational offerings in those fields.
The study came to the same conclusion about a projected shortage of skilled labor for hospitality, transportation/shipping and science technology jobs.
The governor has been hammering the skills-gap issue for two years. Last year, he met with a group of business leaders who were nearly unanimous in lamenting a work force that’s ill-prepared for available jobs.
LePage also signed into law L.D. 627, a bill that allocated $257,000 to York County Community College to respond to demand from Pratt & Whitney for precision machine tool operators.
The large regional employer kicked in $100,000 to assist the effort. Business leaders saw the contribution as a reflection of the size and prevalence of the problem.
Chris Hall, vice president of government relations for the Portland Regional Chamber, said the skills gap is a “diverse and serious issue” for Maine and other states.
A recent report from the Manufacturing Institute showed that more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide were unfilled because employers couldn’t find workers.
“There are thousands of available jobs, but companies don’t see where that work force is going to come from,” Hall said. “We have to find a way to fill those jobs. Companies are here for a reason. … Nobody looks forward to outsourcing these jobs elsewhere or overseas.”
Tackling the issue will likely require long-term education and diverting already-limited funding for higher education.
Maine’s community college system has appealed for more state funding, citing skyrocketing enrollment but stagnant budgets.
Additionally, it’s more expensive to beef up a trade-based curriculum than one heavy in liberal arts. In fact, many community colleges pay more to give trade-based courses than they receive in tuition.
According to data from SMCC, the college spends $1.5 million more to train nursing students than it receives in annual tuition from those students. It takes a $500,000 annual hit for manufacturing training. Computer technology costs an estimated $100,000 more annually.
“These and other educational programs lead to some of the most economically vital and rewarding professions,” said President Ron Cantor. “To truly close the work force skills gap, we need to close the funding gap.”
It’s unclear how far a Democratic proposal will go toward addressing the issue. For now, Democratic leaders are emphasizing collaboration between businesses and education organizations.
Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said lawmakers are looking at business-education partnerships and reviewing the education system to make sure it is responsive to job needs.
“This is an important issue that hits three areas of need,” Goodall said. “It puts people back to work, keeps our businesses here and grows the entire Maine economy.”
Hall, with the Portland Chamber, said bridging the skills gap will take more than collaboration between the business and education community.
He cited statistics from the University of Maine showing that nearly three-quarters of the students who enter the science, technology, engineering and math fields don’t finish with degrees in those fields.
Despite those challenges, there appears to be broad support for legislation to tackle the issue.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said substantive policy could help Maine pick up its lagging recovery from the recession. Maine has been slower than other states to recover the jobs lost during the recent recession.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, said his caucus supports bridging the gap. However, he said, the fact that Democratic leaders are trumpeting such policy is a “perfect example of rhetoric over reality.”
Fredette noted that Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted against the bill to divert funding to York County Community College.
Former Democratic Rep. Devin Beliveau of Kittery, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday that he was surprised to see his party members vote against it.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said Democrats opposed the bill because it made the allocation ongoing rather than subject to legislative approval each year. She noted that the bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate after Republicans approved it in committee.
“It was a difference over budgeting procedure, not ideology about improving work force training,” Hill said.
Nonetheless, if Democrats introduce a skills-gap bill, it may ultimately need approval from LePage. And it could be the first test of collaboration between the Republican governor and the Democratic-led Legislature.
“It’s an important issue that we can solve,” Fredette said. “But we’re only going to solve it if we put aside the politics.”
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: