Students train with welding equipment in the Southern Maine Community College Manufacturing Technician Training Course, offered through SMCC’s Workforce Development Department. Credit: Courtesy of Southern Maine Community College

On June 17, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a two-year budget increasing spending on education and workforce development. Among other things, it calls for drafting a 10-year strategic economic plan aimed at raising incomes and expanding the workforce around new and innovative sectors.

Employers consider the difficulty of finding skilled workers and professionals to be among the most severe obstacles to doing business in Maine. One cause is a shrinking and aging workforce. But Maine also has weak links among career and technical education at the secondary level, the community college system, and the labor market.

The state already spends a substantial amount of money each year on workforce development. Proposals for improving the effectiveness of workforce development efforts abound. However, they are disconnected from one another and fail to address the lack of coordination among the many stakeholders, from high school-level CTE centers and community colleges to local chambers of commerce, industry associations, individual employers and government.

So, while the increased spending is certainly welcome, to get full value from the money, Maine needs to overhaul the institutional links connecting citizens, public educational institutions and employers. Maine needs to build effective public-private partnerships for workforce development.

All the research on effective pathways leading to good jobs agrees that capable intermediary organizations are the key to success. Among their roles is to provide information and to monitor the commitments made by firms, schools and government bodies that are parties to programs building pathways from education to employment. Government often plays the role of “convenor,” initiating efforts to induce business and educational partners to cooperate. At heart, an intermediary is a liaison between education and industry.

Educators and industry partners often say that they “speak different languages” when they come together to coordinate school-based and on-the-job learning. Harmonizing vocational standards with educational standards is challenging. Experience shows that it requires time-consuming discussion and bargaining. Intermediary organizations can help to facilitate and maintain coordination, whether they are directly under government or government is one of several bodies represented. Intermediaries are the embodiment of long-term partnerships between the public and private sectors for the purpose of expanding opportunity for individuals and helping employers meet their needs for skilled workers.

Three conditions are needed to make such public-private partnerships work well. First, they need to operate at the local level, linking local schools (high schools, CTEs and community colleges) with local businesses and business associations. Maine’s large size and decentralized population means that labor markets in the state are local, so intermediaries must operate at the community and county level.

Second, effective partnerships need leadership, usually from a chief executive in government. A governor or a mayor has the power to bring educators and employers, foundations and social service agencies to the table to help establish regular channels of coordination and communication. Sustained attention from the leader ensures that schools and employers follow through on their commitments.

And government leaders can commit state and local budget resources to creating incentives to firms and schools that establish partnerships and create meaningful workplace learning opportunities. For example, Maine could do far more to encourage employers to enter into apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship relationships with educational institutions through tax incentives and matching funds. Maine could reestablish the “Governor’s Training Initiative,” which existed from 1996 until the LePage administration entered office. Through it the state spent $1 to $2 million per year subsidizing employers for training and hiring workers.

Finally, partnerships only yield success when they operate with long time horizons. Often employers entering into partnerships with educational institutions and government in order to solve their workforce needs become discouraged when they learn that there are no quick solutions. Employers have to commit their time and personnel to working with schools on matching curriculum with the soft and hard skills needed in their businesses. They have to open up workplace-based training opportunities, such as internships and mentoring. Schools have to devote sufficient organizational resources to the partnership.

Building up trust and cooperation among the partners takes time and goodwill. But the evidence shows that working together to achieve the common goal is possible – and yields high returns for both employers and individuals.

Thomas F. Remington is a retired professor of political science at Emory University and a visiting professor of government at Harvard University. He spends his summers in Northport and is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.