The beginning of a new school year is a good time to ask, “Are our state’s youngest students ready to learn and thrive in a school environment?” And, as we all have a vested interest in the quality of Maine’s future workforce, we also should ask, “Are our state’s early learners on a solid path to succeed, so they graduate on time with the necessary skills to be ready for college and the workplace?”

Our hope and our goal for our newest students — and for all of our state’s learners — is that the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.

The students of today will become Maine’s future workforce. Unfortunately, we already face a troubling gap between the skills our state’s employers need and the skills our state’s workers have.

How bad is this problem? Research spotlighted by the business-leader group ReadyNation shows that 66 percent of new job openings in the current decade will require postsecondary education. Currently, only 57 percent of Mainers of working age have some level of postsecondary education. Moreover, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, jobs in Maine are expected to grow by 11 percent between 2010 and 2020, with 86 percent of those jobs requiring postsecondary education, further widening the gap.

We know that more and more Maine jobs will require advanced education in the future. Maine needs high-quality education at all levels in order to develop the skilled workforce we’ll need for our state to grow and prosper. And the earlier we reach our kids, the better rate of success we’ll have at all stops on the road.

We also know that early childhood care and early educational programs, such as Head Start and prekindergarten, are of enormous value. Central Maine’s Educare Center is a shining example of the positive outcomes possible with high-quality early learning. A well-respected cost-benefit analysis of nearly 20 different studies of pre-K programs revealed that preschool on average can return a net benefit to society of nearly $30,000 for every child served.

An example specific to our state is Maine Families, our voluntary home visiting program. Even before a child is born, trained, professional mentors in this program can teach soon-to-be moms and dads about a child’s developmental needs, as well as parenting skills and health needs for themselves and their babies.

Maine Families reaches about 2,400 families annually. About 40 percent of new participants are under the age of 22, with 65 percent making less than $20,000 per year. The results are impressive: In 2014, 100 percent of families in Maine Families followed recommended safety practices in most categories, and 95 percent of the families involved in Child Protective Services at enrollment had no further reports of abuse or neglect during the program.

Quality early childhood programs allow more Maine children, many of whom are from our state’s neediest families, to get the leg up they need during their first years — a period when we now know that so much of their brain development takes place.

That quality early childhood education has enormous benefits throughout a child’s life is especially true for Maine’s at-risk and lower income children. In fact, recent evidence suggests that high-quality early education positively contributes to growth in language, literacy and math skills for both low- and middle-income children, with the greatest impact for children living in or near poverty.

Quality early childhood education gives our young people the solid foundation they need to succeed socially and emotionally and develop and improve the critical cognitive skills they’ll need throughout their education. Young children who participate in quality early learning are more likely to start school ready to learn, score higher on reading and math assessments by third and fourth grade and graduate from high school on time.

High-quality early care and education programs also have economic benefits for Maine. Every dollar invested in quality early education generates an additional 78 cents for the overall economy, totaling $1.78 in new spending in Maine, according to ReadyNation. Without question, quality early learning and care have a great return on investment.

At this exciting time of year, when all of our young people are going back to school and our youngest ones are starting their formal education for the first time, let’s commit to supporting and strengthening the great early care and education programs that give our children the crucial foundation and critical skills they need to succeed in life — from kindergarten all the way through to the workplace. These early childhood programs boost our students and our communities while benefitting our state’s employers and strengthening Maine’s future economic competitiveness.

Susan Corbett is CEO of Axiom Technologies, a Machias-based internet service provider. Laurie Lachance is president of Thomas College in Waterville.