BDN Editorial: A little flexibility for Maine’s community colleges can go a long way as coronavirus upends workforce

April 3, 2020

Maine has seen an unprecedented number of unemployment claims both this week and last, with the economy floundering as efforts to contain the coronavirus speed up. At the same time, the virus is already causing surges in demand around the country for certain jobs, particularly in the health care sector.

One of several executive orders issued this week by Gov. Janet Mills won’t solve either of these problems outright, but can it help address both at the same time. By giving additional flexibility to the Maine Community College System to quickly provide free online job training, Monday’s order will help facilitate new opportunities for Maine people — including some who are recently out of work — while providing employers with additional help in desperately-needed fields.

“Maine’s Community Colleges have always played a critical role in providing training and skills to strengthen our workforce. With the state battling COVID-19, that work is more important than ever,” Mills said in a statement on Monday.

The emergency order allows the Maine Community College System to suspend some of the usual requirements for its Maine Quality Program, which collaborates with employers to create training programs in order to meet specific workforce needs.

“So many people have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. But overnight there is a huge demand for workers in certain jobs, such as medical assisting and pharmaceutical technicians,” the system’s President David Daigler added. “We need to give people the training and skills they need to step into those jobs as quickly as possible.”

Mills’ order allows some requirements to be waived, such as the financial contribution from partnering employers, certain eligibility standards for students, and the needed identification of certain workforce demands by the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

It makes perfect sense to give the community colleges the ability to act and adapt quickly to meet evolving workforce needs during this public health and economic crisis. The standard requirements help ensure a well-planned, sustainable and accountable program in normal times, but in the current situation, it’s not hard to imagine some of them slowing the system’s ability to keep pace with a rapidly shifting workforce landscape. And there is clearly a need to move fast.

From March 22 to 28, there were an astounding 23,761 unemployment claims submitted in Maine. That is a new state record, and not a good one, eclipsing last week’s record of 21,459. For perspective, last week’s numbers were quadruple those seen in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Daigler told Maine Public that the system has already identified several training programs to be conducted online, including for jobs as medical assistants, phlebotomists and technicians who could help make supplies like swabs and disinfectants.

Dan Belyea, the executive director for workforce training for the state’s community college system, told the BDN editorial board that the governor’s order will allow the system “to move quick, and fast-track some of the projects.” Belyea said the individual community colleges are currently working to develop these free online training programs, and expects new projects to be available in mid-April.

According to Belyea, these new program offerings will be listed in the system’s existing short-term training calendar — and a new tab will also be created online for training related to COVID-19. Other programs being explored include training for certified nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, and patient service and customer service representatives. Some programs will be offered statewide, and some will have geographic constraints based on regional workforce needs.

To be clear, these training programs won’t be able to single-handedly address the wave of unemployment that is crashing home here in Maine. But we need to be chipping away at this mountain from all sides.

“We can’t provide training for thousands of people,” Belyea acknowledged, adding that “it’s going to be a balancing act” in terms of managing interest in the training programs with available jobs and career opportunities.

“Our net will be cast large and we’ll be looking to raise people up,” Belyea said.

That’s the right attitude, and giving the community colleges this added flexibility was the right move. Mainers looking to build new skills and career opportunities during this time of upheaval should keep an eye on these free online training programs as they become available.