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Maine Bill Aims to Close Jobs 'Skills Gap'
05/09/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A bipartisan panel of lawmakers has high hopes for a new legislative proposal it says will better position Maine workers to fill today's employment needs. The bill is crafted to bridge the so-called skills gap that places many of today's jobs beyond the reach of Maine workers. Supported by the private sector and Maine's higher education institutions, the bill will still require $5 million in funding at a time when the state faces serious budget challenges. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The jobs are out there, just waiting for Mainers with the right skills to claim them. Maine Community College President John Fitzsimmons says he sees the disparity daily in the backlog of students waiting for a chance to enroll in vocational and technical classes on his campuses.

Fitzsimmons says the new bill unveiled by the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future will help bridge the skills gap that separates Maine workers from emerging job opportunities.

"The skills gap is a very real issue for us, and it will dictate our future if we don't step up and take the issue on," Fitzsimmons said.

At Maine's community colleges, there are 83 programs that have enrolled their maximum number of students. And more than 4,000 people are waiting to get in. The legislative committee's bill includes $5 million in funding, and Fitzsimmons says some of the money will be used to add 14 new programs at the campuses.

In addition, the committee's legislation will reach out to rural Maine workers who live in areas that Fitzsimmons says have the highest unemployment rates and poverty rates - and the lowest college attainment rates.

"We will now have permanent funding for a very successful program that we call Bring College to Me," Fitzsimmons said. "We will now be able to offer four programs a year that we will now deliver in its entirety out in rural Maine, which means the employers and the residents of those areas will have exact programs that they need without having to travel an hour and a half or two hours to get to a college that they can get the skills they need for those jobs."

In addition to new funding for community colleges, the bill creates needs-based scholarships for more than 1,000 adult learners who left college without completing a degree. It also requires the University of Maine and the Community College System to transfer credits to help students accelerate their post-secondary degree programs.

The bill also fully funds the Maine Apprenticeship Program, a partnership between workers and more than 150 businesses. Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, says the work benefits businesses by assuring a trained worked force.

"For workers, it provides a unique opportunity to earn while they learn," Schlobohm said. "Workers often work in a trade or profession during the day and take classes at night. The results of the program are really second to none in Maine. The apprenticeship program sees a 111-1 return on its investment, and workers who participate in the program from start to finish see a 62 percent increase in their wages, on average."

"I think there are some Mainers who are down, but they are not out," Berry says. "And what this bill does is help them get back on their feet, get back into the work force and continue to contribute, as we all want to, to Maine's economy."

House Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham joined assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican, in praising the spirit of bipartisanship that guided the lawmakers' work. Berry said the bill should provide new hope for the 50,000 Mainers who are still looking for work.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, a Richmond Democrat, says despite the bill's $5 million price tag, he expects the Legislature will make the measure a priority for funding this year.


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