David Daigler (left), the recently appointed president of the Maine Community College System, listens as NMCC student Autym Malone talks about her experiences on campus, while students Morgan Thibodeau (second from left) and Kianna Caissie look on. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Star-Herald

To continue growing Maine’s economy and to meet demographic needs in America’s oldest state, policymakers must take steps both to engage and empower potential workers already here while also attracting new people. It can’t be either/or — it has to be all of the above.

The 10-year state economic plan released by Gov. Janet Mills last week appropriately prioritizes growing Maine’s workforce as one of three main goals, and recognizes that this effort will take a multifaceted approach that not only attracts new workers to the state, but also reaches out to Mainers not currently in the workforce and builds on the existing skills of those already working so that they can advance their careers.

David Daigler, the president of Maine’s Community College System (MCCS), stressed in an interview with the BDN this week that the third piece of that equation — building the skills of Maine workers so that they can better compete in today’s economy — cannot get lost in the discussion. And he’s right.

“It’s not just the demographic and the shrinking profile. There are 185,000 people in the state right now who have some college, but no degree,” said Daigler, who also emphasized his support for the 10-year plan that MCCS was involved in developing. “And raising them up, bringing up their skill set so that they can be a part of that more competitive economy, is key.”

Daigler, unsurprisingly and justifiably, sees the state’s community colleges continuing to play an active role in that necessary effort (as does the 10-year plan).

According to a 2019 analysis from Pew Research Center, young college graduates ages 25-37 who work full time made on average nearly $25,000 more per year than their counterparts with a high school diploma. But that doesn’t mean a college degree is the only path to building skills and growing economic opportunities after high school. There’s also evidence that non-degree credentials and certifications, usually achieved in shorter time periods, can lead to higher incomes and more employment options. So there’s a clear economic incentive for workers to pursue post-secondary education and training, no matter what that might look like.

The community college system’s Quality Centers Program has for years been creating training programs, through grants funded by the state, that benefit both employees and businesses. And with low unemployment and high demand for skilled workers, the system is working to meet the demands of both in a rapidly changing economy.

“We’re looking at things totally different. It’s not on this semester cycle. It’s quick, it’s fast, it’s meeting the needs of business at the speed of business,” said Dan Belyea, the system’s executive director of workforce training.

Belyea also noted MCCS’ work engaging people who are too often removed from Maine’s workforce, another critical part of the workforce goals in the 10-year economic plan.

“We need everybody in the workforce,” he stressed, highlighting work in collaboration with other groups, including the Department of Corrections and the Bangor Area Recovery Network (BARN), to provide education and training opportunities to people who may face additional barriers to employment because of substance use disorder or past incarceration.

A key message here is that Maine can’t leave any population segments out of efforts to grow the workforce, and that their can be pathways for everyone to pursue additional training and education regardless of their background or perceived limitations.

MaineSpark, a collaboration between education and business organizations in the state, says Maine needs 158,000 more workers to be who are “ credentialed and educated” by 2025 in order to match the “excellent job opportunities available in the coming years.” Matching a MaineSpark goal, Mills’ 10-year state economic plan similarly predicts that Maine “will need 60 to 65 percent of its workers to have credentials” by 2025. Part of the path forward will be attracting new, already credentialed workers to the state. But Maine must also continue and ramp up its efforts to build the skills of our existing workforce.

Our state will face some daunting demographic challenges and exciting opportunities in the coming years. Growing and training Maine’s workforce is an essential part of the equation.