Maine’s post-COVID economy is threatened by two distinct human resource challenges – fewer students enrolling in higher ed and the continuing worker shortages in business. A recent Press Herald editorial (Our View, Nov. 9) raises concerns about student declines within the University of Maine System and, particularly, at Maine’s community colleges. It goes on to say that potential students are faced with a tough choice of whether to take a job or get an education. Remarkably, it goes on to suggest that recent employee wage and benefit gains may be causing this. Just a short time ago businesses were criticized for not paying their staff enough, and now it seems they are paying too much and hurting educational attainment!

Without a doubt these are unusual times, and there are many unanswered questions and problems yet to be solved. Most would agree, however, that along with the pandemic a big contributor is purely demographic. Maine is the oldest state in the nation, and what used to be the funny answer to a trivia question has now become a grave policy issue for the state. As more and more experienced people retire or leave the workforce, they must be replaced to avert the potential for long term harm to the state’s future prosperity.

As the Press Herald reported, since 2019 student enrollment is down 5 percent in the UMaine System and, incredibly, 13.4 percent within Maine’s community colleges. This confirms that higher education is experiencing the similar effects that demographics and the pandemic have had on business employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, during this same two-year period Maine’s total employment is down 4.7 percent, or about 32,000 people who are no longer in our workforce. The Maine leisure and hospitality sector, representing about 10 percent of all Maine workers, has taken the biggest hit since 2019, with employment down 18 percent or over 13,000 people.

Admittedly, my views come from a restaurant and hotel perspective, but I believe Maine’s education and workforce challenges are closely connected, as are the solutions. The answer lies in presenting, not a choice between work and studies, but a new education and career pathway that combines both at the same time. This is the basis for Dirigo Hospitality 2025, my former organization’s plan to rebuild Maine’s hospitality and tourism industry. HospitalityMaine’s belief is that the only way to successfully develop more employees is through a new, much more strategic partnership between educational organizations and business interests. While some efforts have begun, a much broader collaboration is needed, ideally with all sectors of the economy participating alongside all levels of education and training.  Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people together and while a fresh approach may not solve long standing problems immediately, it will certainly provide a firm kickstart to begin moving the needle in the opposite direction.

These pathway concepts are not new and are variously known as apprenticeships, structured internships, electronic badging, work-study, on-the-job training, certifications and more. All these programs must be contemporized for the situations we face today, and there is some exciting work already underway at career and technical high schools, within several community colleges and at the state corrections system.  Moreover, the new pathways also offer training and employment for immigrants, high school students, opportunity youth, veterans and many more disadvantaged communities across the state. A key is that all these initiatives must lead toward degrees and credentials of value, always keeping individual growth and personal advancement at the forefront.

Looking ahead, businesses are likely going to have to do more with fewer people, so new systems, procedures and a more skilled workforce will be needed. Colleges and universities must adopt new education models, some already in use, that will attract more students, while giving many an opportunity to support themselves and their families at the same time. Maine’s business and education leaders have the rare opportunity to create transformational change by working together and helping to solve Maine’s most vexing challenge in the post-pandemic economy.

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