An aging state looks to colleges to keep its economy humming

August 16, 2023

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I report from Maine on the community-college system’s efforts to jump start work-force training programs for incumbent workers and those looking to begin or switch careers.
Maine bets its push on skills training can become a pathway to lifelong learning

Maine bets its push on skills training can become a pathway to lifelong learning

Yes, Maine is a great place to visit in August, but (I swear!) that’s not the only reason I ventured northeast from hot-and-muggy D.C. last week to spend time with community-college leaders, instructors, and students in South Portland and Brunswick. I went because the economic challenges Maine is now confronting offer a preview of circumstances that could be coming soon to many other parts of the country. I wanted to see firsthand how Maine has responded — and how replicable this approach might be.

Maine has an aging population coupled with a decline in young people continuing their education beyond high school. But it also has an economy still in need of skilled workers in health care, energy, defense, and other fast-growing fields (with fewer and fewer low-skilled jobs available). The state has a sizable population of other adults who’ve become disengaged from work — an “under-skilled and untapped labor pool” in the words of David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System — that could easily move up the economic ladder with even a little additional education and training.

None of that lends itself to a casual approach. “We need to be more efficient in getting students to jobs,” Daigler told me.

Two big infusions of money in 2021 have helped finance Maine’s new emphasis on what Daigler calls a “real skills for real jobs” approach: $35 million from the state (a portion of its federal American Rescue Plan dollars) and $15.5 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation. Maine also created a new partnership program to engage with employers — the “Workforce Development Compact” — which encourages them to provide training to their incumbent workers by covering half the cost, up to $1,200 per employee.

While job training is the focus for the programs supported by these and other work-force funds, the system is also hoping the approach will eventually translate into something even more holistic. The programs are creating “another pathway to college,” Daigler said. “This is literally a stage for lifelong learning.”

It’s too early to say whether the strategy will play out that way, but from the looks of things, the first act is paying off.

Already more than 1,200 employers have signed onto the compact, and more than half of them have spent a total of $8.5 million (some of it later reimbursed) to provide training for nearly 9,800 employees. Maine’s two big health systems and the shipbuilder Bath Iron Works are among the biggest partners. Notably, the community-college system has provided only about one-quarter of the training; the rest has come from other providers. But the system still expects to benefit, as I explain below.

The system has also enrolled another 3,000 students in dozens of “pre-hire” programs, like the nine-month medical-assistant program I visited at Southern Maine Community College, in South Portland, where students were practicing injections on a dummy patient, and the three-week Marine Design course I popped into at the college’s Brunswick campus, where students using CAD software were learning some of the basics of ship design. Students who complete the course are guaranteed an interview at Bath Iron Works. (While there, I also took a turn at the campus’s welding simulator, complete with a VR headset. That was cool, but let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not the one building ships.)

Maine has so many job-training programs running right now that are free or at a low cost to students — some with stipends to students covered by the community-college system, some paid apprenticeships funded by employers, some considered pre-apprenticeships — I honestly started to lose track.

But what I saw and heard left a big impression. Here are four thoughts:

The programs are opening doors to economic opportunity, thanks in no small part to the stipends and salaries that often are attached. At all the classes I visited, I met students eager to improve their career prospects. Among them: a young mother who never attended college and left her job at a cellphone company to train for six weeks and become a phlebotomist; a 12-year restaurant cook in the Marine Design course hoping for a “more family friendly” job; and a former document-scanner in a medical office now training to be a medical assistant after seeing one of the system’s “Earn While You Learn!” flyers in the kitchen where he worked.

The programs are reaching students who aren’t traditional college age: 62 percent are over the age of 35. More than half have a high-school diploma but no college degree.

The compact and other efforts are fostering deeper partnerships between the college system and employers. Yeah, college leaders often make such boasts, but the Maine folks insist that their partnerships are more than talk. Jim Whitten, dean of work-force development at Southern Maine Community College, said he now meets quarterly with MaineHealth officials to ensure he understands their coming staffing needs, like plans to offer certified nursing assistants courses that could prepare them for more advanced roles, and meets weekly with leaders at Bath Iron Works. The defense contractor, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, has even begun to share confidential information with the college about its production plans (it has contracts to build destroyers for the U.S. Navy) so the two can better coordinate on training.

Thomas Stevens, director of training at BIW, told me the relationship was akin to “a very functional family,” where the system can provide training for almost everything he needs. The ship builder now employs 6,500 people and expects to hire 1,000 people a year for the next five years in response to growth and retirements. The college system, he said, “really wants to understand what our challenges are.”

As I was speaking with Stevens in the lobby of Southern Maine’s Brunswick campus, I glimpsed another angle of that partnership as a visitor swung by to say hi. It was Charles Krugh, president of BIW, heading to speak at a Southern Maine leadership class for new BIW managers. The class is one of the training programs for incumbent workers funded by the compact.

The Workforce Development Compact is creating opportunities for more-lasting connections with students. Although community colleges aren’t offering most of the incumbent-worker training, the system is still hoping to benefit as it provides overall coordination for those programs. One way it does that is by withholding 20 percent of the reimbursements it owes to employers until they provide some basic demographic data on each employee trained. With that information, the system can follow up with the employees about enrolling in credit-bearing courses. Those employees are also eligible for 50-percent discounts on tuition.

The replicability of this program — and even its long-term sustainability — is still a big question mark. The federal money funding many of the pre-hire programs was a one-time infusion of cash, and the Alfond Foundation money is also due to run out by the end of 2025. Then what? The system isn’t sure. The foundation had previously given the system $3.5 million, so college leaders are hoping that the training program’s successes will encourage further Alfond support. College and state officials have also begun talks with their representatives in Congress, with an eye on attracting some U.S. Department of Defense funding, given the strategic importance of training future employees at BIW and at the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which is responsible for modernizing some of the Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

Apart from these efforts, Daigler said he thinks the relationships the colleges are developing now with employers and broader trends in the economy — especially, in this region, the shortage of workers — will encourage more employers to step up.

Nationally right now, for every 100 jobs, there are about 75 available job seekers, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In Maine, it’s only 50 job seekers per 100 jobs. I’ve never been all that convinced that there are enough enlightened employers out there to make a big dent in the system, but Daigler said demographic and economic shifts are changing those dynamics. “Our relative work-force shortage,” he said, “is changing that mindset.”

If he’s right, Maine could be a model for other states where the populations are aging but the needs aren’t going away.