Improving Skills of Low-Income Working Mainers

(Originally posted in Line Items, a blog of the Maine Economic Policy Center)
by Jody Harris

Mainers need good jobs. Businesses need good workers. It would seem a match made in heaven.

Yet, there is a gap between the education and training of workers and the needed job skills of today.

More jobs require college degrees. Manufacturing jobs are highly technical. Computers and automation dominate the workplace. Too many Mainers lack the occupational skills needed for the jobs most in demand.

Working Mainers do not have to go unskilled. But our elected leaders must step up and make access to quality education and training a priority.

For working adults going back to school, the hurdles are immense. Parents have children to care for. Courses are expensive. Financial aid often doesn’t pay for part-time schooling. Adult students may lack study skills or computer skills needed to succeed in college.

It is telling that many students start college, but drop out. In Maine, as many as a quarter of a million adults have started higher education, but not finished. University of Maine Chancellor James Page calls this a stranded investment.

And let’s not forget the Mainers who didn’t make it through high school. Close to 8% of Mainers do not have a high school degree or equivalent. According to the Working Poor Families Project, Maine ranks sixth in the nation in this regard.

Mainers without a diploma are mostly in low-paying jobs. In Portland, a single parent supporting one child and earning minimum wage needs to work 108 hours per week to meet her family’s simplest needs.

Conversely, Mainers earning a credential (with just one year of a college) can pull themselves out of poverty, earning as much as $8,500 per year more than an adult with a high school diploma. An individual with a bachelor’s degree earns on average $20,000 per year more than workers with a high school diploma or GED.

Yet working families’ opportunities for income growth are under assault by state policymakers. Even as working parents lack child care, the 125th Legislature cut millions from Maine’s Head Start and child care subsidy programs ―funds that help parents attend work and school. College is expensive and financial aid can be hard to get. Yet, the percent of state funding comprising the University of Maine’s budget today is 26% compared to 70% ten years ago and the governor and legislature cut university resources again by $2.3 million for 2012-13 forcing tuition hikes.

Our elected officials can invest in Maine workers or they can let businesses go elsewhere for trained employees. Wise state policies and smart public investments can retool workers’ skills that will rebuild businesses’ employee pools; a good match for Maine.