October 13 Guest Column in the Lewsiton Sun Journal: Education innovation addressing workforce skills gap
As someone who works with business leaders every day, I know how deeply Maine’s looming skills gap weighs on their minds. Regardless of how incredible their products or services are, if they can’t find employees with the right skills, training and aptitude for the work they need done, they cannot serve customers. When these goods and services are not available to those of us who want and need them, our communities suffer.
Last year, Educate Maine partnered with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation to survey more than 1,000 Maine employers. They told us that amongst their top 10 concerns, No. 2 is availability of professional workers, No. 4 is availability of skilled technical workers, and No. 5 is the availability of entry-level workers.
A shortfall like the one created by this “skills gap” could be devastating. We know that the economy in Maine and around the country will be weakened considerably once our workforce begins to run out of qualified prospective employees.
But there’s good news, and innovation is happening across our state to address these challenges. For instance, the Bridge Academy Maine program provides a shining example of how education facilities create opportunity and mitigate these gaps — in this case, by “bridging” the divide between school and career.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Bridge Academy Maine program at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, talk to the students there, and introduce them to about 25 local and statewide business leaders. Students were able to ask employers questions about their future and also network with people who can help them find their first, or next, jobs.
Bridge Academy is a cutting-edge career and technical education (CTE) program that provides high school students with an early college experience and the skills needed to graduate workforce-ready. Students in this program acquire both the hard and soft skills needed to thrive in the workforce.
Bridge Academy students attend their regional CTE school, where they participate in technical education in a field of their choice, which, in many cases, have college credits available. Students may take courses that offer them both college credits and real-world credentials, reducing the time and debt that they will accrue by enrolling in post-secondary education. They also continue their academic classes at their high school.
Through their time in Bridge Academy, students gain technical skills through their hands-on training, but they also learn many of the “executive-functioning” skills in highest demand by our employers: skills like effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and adopting an academic mindset.
Bridge Academy is a great example of bringing together the best in our education system in Maine. It is a true collaboration among our high schools, our CTE centers, and our university and community college systems.
As part of the program, students have more access to support services. Guidance counselors, teachers, professors, CTE instructors, and parents are all there to help students succeed. Through this specialized training and real-life experience, the Bridge Academy eases students’ transition to campus life and to solid careers. Students no longer have to choose between technical skills training and pre-college academic rigor. They can do either or both in this blended program.
The Bridge Academy students I met are engaged in and excited about their learning, and hopeful about their futures. Teachers said they are often the leaders in their classrooms. A parent told me about how the program helped her daughter hone her study habits and time management skills. I also met one Bridge Academy graduate who entered her freshman year with 26 accepted college credits — and with two additional summer classes, she will be able to graduate in three years, thus saving her both time and a year’s worth of college expenses.
All of this is good news. Maine employers are counting on our education institutions to work together to address their skills gap needs and innovative programs like Bridge Academy Maine help ensure that members of our future workforce are achieving credentials of quality so that these students are adequately prepared for family-sustaining, in-demand careers. That’s a key part of achieving or exceeding MaineSpark’s goal that 60 percent of Maine adults have a credential of value by 2025.
The success of Maine’s economy relies on the skills and experiences we instill in students today. It is imperative that we secure the strength of our future workforce through high-quality, intentional skills training and education today.
Jason Judd is the executive director of Educate Maine.