Thousands of Maine workers have suffered the loss of a job and the frustrations that come with finding the next one. Too often, the skills and experiences workers have accumulated over many years are no longer sought by employers. For some Maine employers, the inability to find workers with the requisite skills and qualifications has led to growing dissatisfaction with Maine’s education and training system.

While the governor, the Legislature and employer groups are all focused on Maine’s building workforce crisis and calling for reforms, we suggest they turn to the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program for a targeted and sustainable approach to upgrading the skills of Maine’s workers while reforming our workforce development system.

In 2008, the Maine Legislature unanimously supported the passage of LD 1884: An Act to Create the Competitive Training Fund and Improve Maine Employment Security Programs. This law established the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program and directly tied it to the workforce needs of high-demand, high-wage employers in every region of the state. For businesses, it increases the pool of skilled and trained employees. For participants, it provides resources and support to acquire advanced skills and training and ultimately greater economic security for their families.

Administered by the Maine Department of Labor through its network of CareerCenters, it provides individuals with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty level access to education, training and support that will lead them to employment in high-wage, high-demand occupations that pay above the state average of $15.63 per hour.

Maine included access to postsecondary education as part of the CSSP because of the demonstrated correlations between postsecondary education and higher wage levels. Recent Maine data show that the average hourly wage of individuals with bachelor’s degrees is almost twice that of those with only a high school diploma. Data also reveal that for those with bachelor’s degrees, the unemployment rate is half that of those with a high school diploma. Higher educated groups also report greater job security, and, as overall education level advances, hourly wage increases and unemployment levels fall.

In Maine, as in most areas of the country, post-secondary education is required for two-thirds of high-wage, high-growth jobs. A recent study by the Maine Compact for Higher Education found that while 59 percent of “projected job vacancies in Maine over the coming decade … will require postsecondary credentials, ” the worry is that only “37 percent of Mainers ages 25-64 have an associate, bachelor’s or advanced degree,” despite a strong high school graduation rate. Maine’s future prosperity is, however, inescapably linked with the investments we make now in human capital, and cultivating a knowledgeable, skillful workforce is essential.

When employers are asked what they look for and value in employees, they uniformly say they want workers who have good communication and critical thinking skills, can work on their own and collaboratively with others, have high ethical standards, are able to research and assess situations from multiple perspectives, are organized yet flexible and adaptable, and can take initiative and manage priorities. It is these same attributes that ensures us of having an engaged, reflective, caring citizenry. The best way to achieve these skills and ways of thinking: post-secondary education.

Investing in education and training of unemployed and underemployed workers is a proactive way to prepare them for — and stabilize them in — the current and future economy. Having educated, up-to-date skilled workers is essential for economic development. Our investigations into the CSSP program have found that this program does just that. A recent labor department report to the Maine Legislature noted that 82 percent of CSSP participants were enrolled in post-secondary institutions, preparing for jobs in high-growth, high-wage occupations at salaries that will nearly double their previous earnings.

This program, participants say, has made a critical difference in their decision to advance their education and to succeed: They plan to stick with it and graduate. This is supported by a 2011 labor department report on the CSSP to the Legislature, which says that “In the first 30 months of the program, only 9 percent of participants left the program without graduating. This suggests that CSSP participants will successfully complete their programs at a far greater rate than is typical of their peers in higher education, where the dropout rate is more than 30 percent.”

With results like these, Maine lawmakers should look for opportunities to make the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program accessible to more workers seeking to upgrade their skills. Each year, there are many more applicants for this program than the program can serve: In 2010 for example, 846 individuals applied for 100 openings, and in June 2011, 2,508 individuals applied for 135 slots.

Extending this opportunity to more Maine workers will not only increase the economic well-being of these families but also expand the pool of skilled labor available to Maine employers looking to expand their workforce — two good reasons to build on this successful program. And a third good reason: It will secure the future of our state for generations to come.

Sandy Butler is professor of social work and MSW program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine; Luisa S. Deprez is professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of the Maine Regional Network of the Scholars Strategy Network; John Dorrer is former acting commissioner and director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Maine Department of Labor and now works on issues of workforce development with Jobs for the Future in Boston. All are members of Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.