Almost everyone agrees that what you learn in college has a direct impact on the kind of work you do and what you can earn.

But there is a surprising lack of accord about what skills a student should acquire before graduation.

For the most part, employers say they are not looking for students who have been trained to perform specific tasks or to use specific equipment. That’s something the companies are willing to teach.

But they tell surveyors they need people with “soft skills” that will let them adapt to a changing environment. Employers are looking for good communicators who can express themselves in writing and show up on time for work. They also need people who are reliable, trustworthy and curious.

This point is highlighted in “Preparing Maine’s Workforce” — the latest installment in the “Making Maine Work” series by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation — and it may explain a divide in perceptions about the quality of the education provided by our schools. The report quoted from a national survey that found that although 72 percent of people inside colleges and universities believed that their graduates were ready for the job market, only 42 percent of employers agreed.

“Alignment” is a buzzword in higher education today, and it describes a common understanding between business and education. It’s a concept that is viewed with suspicion by educators, who think it’s code for trading academic inquiry for technical training. But, according to the employers reflected in the survey, that’s not what they are after.

There is nothing to fear about better communication between such important sectors of our economy.

Mainers have the lowest per capita income in New England and the lowest attainment of college degrees and professional certifications. This is no coincidence.

It has been well established that the further an individual proceeds in education, the more they can expect to earn. According to the “Making Maine Work” report, Mainers with bachelor’s degrees average 75 percent more in earnings over the course of their lifetimes than high school graduates.

More education can add up to a better life for individuals, but it also makes for a healthier economy when those gains are spread out over the whole population. More educated workers earning more translates into more demand for goods and services, benefiting people at all levels of the economy.

Since individuals aren’t the only ones who receive those benefits, they should not be the only ones to make the investment in education. The state should endeavor to return to the pre-1980s commitment to supporting the public university system, putting less pressure on students and their families to take on debt.

And since businesses also stand to benefit, they should play a role in helping the system work.

Employers can hire interns and apprentices (sometimes qualifying for federal funds to support their salaries) to give students real-world experience that can help them focus their learning. It also can provide a way for businesses to recruit new permanent employees.

Businesses also can do more to support current workers who want to go back to school and improve their skills. These mid-career students can apply what they already have learned on the job to take on new responsibilities more effectively than someone right out of school with no experience.

The “Making Maine Work” report proposes some concrete steps that business people and educators could take to improve the skill level of Maine’s workforce. It should be required reading for anyone interested in building the next economy for Maine.

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