In early February, I had the honor of presenting to the newly seated Maine Legislature at its Policy Leaders’ Academy. The theme for the day was: Workforce Challenges and Opportunities — Strengthening Maine’s Human Capital Pipeline.
Before joining Thomas in 2012, I spent nearly three decades analyzing and forecasting Maine’s economy, including 11 years as the state economist and eight years as the president of the Maine Development Foundation, leading their signature programs: the Maine Economic Growth Council, Maine Downtown Center, Leadership Maine and this unique and powerful Policy Leaders’ Academy. Over that time, I developed a deep passion for the power of education to transform lives, communities and the economy of the state I deeply love.
As legislators prepared to launch their work towards creating a dynamic, prosperous future for Maine, I urged them to consider what I believe to be the five most important investments that we can make in economic development.
1. After analyzing every form of economic development, I have come to believe that in a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy, the single most important economic development investment we can make is to bring each person in Maine to his or her highest educational potential. Michael Porter, who studied economies across the globe in writing “The Competitive Advantage of Nations,” found that the most critical determinant of a region’s prosperity is its capacity for innovation. By investing in the education and training of all of our people, Maine will unleash the innovative capacity to grow the next generation of businesses in our state.
2. A high school diploma is critical but no longer sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living, much less achieving a level of prosperity that is above the prior generation. Educate Maine’s 2016 Education Indicators Report for Maine states: “By 2018, the demand for college-educated workers in Maine is projected to be seven times greater than for high school graduates.”
3. If we ever hope to achieve the goal of ensuring our 18-year-old high school graduates are career and college ready, we should change our focus to making sure our 5-year-olds are kindergarten ready. Nearly 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before the age of 5. Waiting until kindergarten is simply too late.
4. In considering the human capital pipeline across the span of a person’s life, we have historically spent the majority of our time and resources further strengthening the part of the pipe that is already strong rather than focusing on the areas of connection or transition where the vast majority of the leakages take place. Educare Central Maine prepares children to transition into kindergarten, and the first-in-the-nation partnership between Thomas College and Jobs for Maine Graduates helps young people transition from high school to college.
5. There are three major segments of Maine’s higher education ecosystem: the University System, the Community College System, and the 10 private, non-profit colleges. We have a tremendous mix of higher education opportunities to offer as a state, as well as a strong tradition of independent academies, and yet we have created an environment where we all fight for the limited and shrinking numbers of Maine students. Instead of fighting over pieces of the pie, let’s expand the whole pie by making Maine an education destination and marketing the entire secondary and post-secondary option to the rest of the world. If families will send their precious children to Maine for summer camp, why wouldn’t they send their teenagers to high school or college in a beautiful state that is safe and clean?
At Thomas, we are working diligently to innovate for the future. In 2015, we launched the Center for Innovation in Education to revolutionize the way we train future teachers. On May 10th, we will announce another major investment to catalyze innovation in business. We collaborate with Colby, KVCC, Unity, Snow Pond Academy, Educare and JMG to strengthen the educational continuum. As a leader in dual enrollment, we provide 1,000 college-level classes to 23 high schools around the state, raising aspirations and lowering costs. At Thomas, we believe that all things are possible for our college, region and state if we dare to dream big.
Laurie Lachance is president of Thomas College.