Austin Winslow (left) and Carter Quist, students in Northern Maine Community College’s building construction technology program, cut lumber to specifications. Credit: Courtesy of Griffin Goins / Northern Maine Community College

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It’s one of the most common signs of the times, literally: Help Wanted.

Seemingly just about any business you walk into these days is looking to hire more employees. The reasons for this worker shortage being felt so acutely by so many industries are multifaceted, as are the potential solutions.

A recent survey sent by Maine Department of Labor found that, of 2,500 respondents who were looking for a job in Maine, 34 percent said a lack of opportunities that matched with their skill set was their top reason for not returning to work. And as a follow up, 20 percent of those surveyed said they needed additional training to be able to return to work.

At an important time, a promising new initiative from the Maine Community College System has entered the chat.

Earlier this month, the community college system, Gov. Janet Mills and others unveiled a $60 million, four-year effort to try to tackle the demographic trends and workforce shortages through a new virtual training and education center. The Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce is funded by $35 million in federal funds administered by the state, $15.5 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation, and additional support from the private sector and other grants.

Leaders from the college system spoke with the BDN editorial board on Oct. 18 about this new effort, which has grown in part out of the success of the system’s Quality Centers Program, which provides short-term training to meet immediate needs in the business community.

“It’s core principle was to work directly with businesses, identify skills that the employers need for new jobs, or jobs that are currently vacant, and use those funds to help train — in short-term training programs — people who are interested in those jobs,” the system’s president, David Daigler, told us about the Quality Centers Program. “And then we hit the pandemic, and we found how critical that program was, because it was so agile, because it was able to move very quickly to meet changing business and industry needs.”

The responsiveness and agility here is key. Daigler encouragingly pointed to a phrase that he said is used frequently in the community college system, “moving at the speed of business” and we think that is a critical way of approaching these training efforts moving forward.

It might be impossible for businesses, government and educational institutions to plan for an unplannable situation like a global pandemic, but it is possible to have systems in place that can adapt to meet the moment. Working so that happens, not at the speed of government or academia, but at the speed of business, can be an invaluable approach. 

The college system’s director of communication, Noel Gallagher, likewise made a critical point about how training matters to employees as a pathway to higher compensation. Daigler also discussed how employers supporting training for their employees sends a signal to those employees that they are valued.  

In our assessment, addressing the current labor situation is as much about meeting employees’ needs as it is about meeting employers’ needs. This new initiative from the community college system has the potential to help both sides of the equation.

Dan Belyea, who leads the Quality Centers Program and will coordinate the new training efforts, called the influx of funding a “historic investment in Maine’s workforce” that he doesn’t think has ever been seen before in the state.

As we’ve  said about other pandemic relief funding, this offers a tremendous and transformative opportunity. But that requires follow through from the organizations and officials involved in these historic investments. Such significant funding demands significant results.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...