St. John Valley residents view the EMS and fire garage that are part of the career and technical education area of Sanford High School during a grant-funded Valley Unified trip to the campus on Feb. 8. Credit: Morgan Mitchell | BDN

One of the major concerns of any member of the business community is having a skilled, strong pool of potential employees. Here in Maine, that pool simply isn’t big enough. And, as our population ages, the problem is about to get much worse — unless we act.

A new brief by the business-leader group ReadyNation highlighted that, by 2025, Maine will need an additional 158,000 appropriately skilled and credentialed workers to fill our state’s job openings. In order to fill those openings with qualified employees, 60 percent of Maine adults will need to hold a postsecondary credential of value.

The problem is that our current rate is 46 percent, slightly below the national average of 48 percent.

Just as scary, Maine’s working-age population is shrinking. Maine has the highest median age of any state in the country, at 44.3, a figure 6.5 years older than the nationwide average. An aging population means that job openings are created at a faster rate — faster than we currently have the ability to fill them — thereby growing our “skills gap.”

Thankfully, there’s a path forward.

Being a small business owner for over 35 years (and counting) has taught me a lot. I’ve realized that running a successful restaurant business in today’s world requires additional skills outside of the technical skills of cooking, waiting or bartending.

In order for businesses like mine to have the skilled employees they need, and in order for us to close the skills gap, we have to invest in quality career-technical education (CTE) and postsecondary programs that will do the best possible job of imparting these skills. One such CTE program is Bridge Academy Maine, and I’m proud to be its executive director. Bridge Academy Maine is designed to prepare students for success in careers and/or in college after high school graduation.

Bridge Academy students come from all kinds of backgrounds and have all kinds of long-term goals. The program allows them to earn college credit while still in high school, and, just as important, connects their rigorous academic work with real-world experiences that impart deeper learning competencies like collaboration and effective communication — the very skills craved by employers across industries. The partnership between our classroom teachers, CTE instructors and college professors highlights the best of our education system in Maine.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Education backs up the importance of programs like these. The study found that students enrolled in CTE courses in high school had higher median earnings eight years out when compared to their non-CTE peers. CTE participants have higher high school graduation rates, as well as higher postsecondary enrollment rates, compared to peers who do not participate in CTE.

High-quality CTE programs can do so much for students, from helping to prepare them for college, to saving them money by allowing them to begin postsecondary education with significant credits, to giving them the foundational skills they’ll need to be successful in the modern workplace.

Maine’s career and technical centers like the Bridge Academy Maine program are innovative examples of better matching students’ interests and needs with those of Maine workplaces. These programs attract and motivate many students who might not otherwise see their potential for success in a wide variety of careers, including those that are in highest demand.

Investments in high-quality secondary and postsecondary options help ensure that our students are building the skills they need today to lead our businesses tomorrow.

Overcoming Maine’s skills gap and ensuring we have the workforce we need in the future begins with greater access and affordability of quality postsecondary credentials.

Brian Langley, executive director of Bridge Academy Maine, is a former state senator, restaurant owner and a member of the business-leader group ReadyNation.