At the end of World War II, returning servicemen avoided a glutted labor market by going to college in unprecedented numbers and acquired new skills. A few years later, the result was a cycle of sustained economic expansion and opportunity and the creation of a greatly expanded and durable middle class.

Something similar may be going on in the current labor market that promises a brighter future for economic growth, while still leaving policymakers plenty of causes for concern.

It started with the observation that November’s drop in unemployment was in part a result of a shrinking work force. Economists initially attributed that to discouraged older workers who couldn’t find a place in a changing economy.

Some digging, however, indicates that the transition is also because of younger workers going back to school to acquire better skills. Like the GIs of the 1940s, this could provide some raw material for an extended economic boom.

There are some causes for concern, however. Today’s college students, unlike recipients of the GI Bill benefits, are likely to come back into the job market with significant debt. Students are operating under the belief that, when they get done, there will be jobs in their field that pay well enough to support them and their loans. If they are wrong, we could see a series of defaults like the home foreclosure crisis that would have broad effects throughout the economy.

And, according to research conducted by The New York Times, not everyone is taking advantage of this down period to update their skills. Young women in their late teens and 20s are much more likely than their male counterparts to go back to school. Young men won’t be in position to benefit if there is increased demand for high-skill jobs.

Maine officials should look for ways for the state to help young people of both genders to get the skills they will need. That means reducing barriers to entry for higher education, including making more room at the community colleges and making the state university system more affordable.

When the next expansion comes, Maine should be ready for it.

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