Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The art of the Op-Ed

The op ed is writing platform that I’ve utilized on numerous occasions. In the past, I’ve had a great deal of success getting them placed in various Maine newspapers and other publications. Occasionally, lacking the official backing of an organization to lend credence to my point of view, my opinion pieces didn’t make it to a wider audience.

For the past 15 months, I’ve been active in a new realm, that being the world of workforce development. My position has given me a firsthand look at skill development and how to prepare Maine workers for the world of the 21st century. It has also helped me to develop an understanding of the pressing issues facing both workers, as well as employers, in addressing Maine’s shrinking labor pool. Our state must find a way to address it, without going to the same old well of throwing money at a moving target. One-size-fits-all solutions won’t work, which is what our current education commissioner and others are proposing.

I took some of my time, two weeks ago to craft my thoughts on the state’s plan to require students to fill out a college application, in order to receive their diploma. My Op-Ed addresses some of the issues that I see as paramount for the state of Maine, as far as preparing our workforce for the jobs of the future, as well as having the kind of skilled workers that make businesses want to locate to Maine. If we fail to take a serious look at the problem and think that doing things the same old way will yield different results, then we, as Mainers, are deluded.

Let me say first of all that I am not anti-college and that college is a necessity for many students. However, one of the dark little secrets that college admissions people don’t tell you about is that less than half of incoming college freshman actually obtain the degree that they went to college to acquire. Worse, many high school graduates are not prepared for college and spend much of their first year taking expensive remedial courses.

This Op-Ed was intended to address what I see as a flaw in Commissioner Gendron’s and the Maine Legislature’s plan to require all seniors to be channeled towards college. For whatever reason, none of the state’s daily newspapers, nor Mainebiz decided my opinion was worthy of publication. My primary issue with this isn’t a case of sour grapes, as much as it shows that presenting opposing views of tired and traditional ways of educating our workforce apparently are not worthy of a wider audience. It also continues the trend that I’ve noted before of presenting the same chorus of voices on various issues.

Here is my op ed that I had hoped might find its way to print;

College for Some, But Not Necessarily for All
By Jim Baumer

Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron has followed through on a bill proposed the Maine legislature, which will require all Maine high school seniors to fill out at least one college application, before being eligible to graduate.

On the surface, Gendron’s plan looks good. Upon closer examination, however, this “one size fits all approach” in career development doesn’t make as much sense. Too often, educators, who hold a vested interest in the system, perfunctorily push college upon students that have no desire to pursue that option. Far too many students finally reach their senior year in high school, chomping at the bit to be done sitting in a seat, facing the front of the room and preparing for yet another test. They are tired of being forced to recall information that has no relevance to their lives. For these students, imposing a prison sentence of four more years makes no sense at all.

I don’t begrudge the Commissioner for trying to raise the aspirations of Maine’s high school students. However, it is readily apparent to workforce professionals and employers that too many of Maine’s future workers graduating from high school and even college are sadly lacking the “soft” skills that employers are clamoring for in the 21st century. Far too many college freshman end up spending their first year taking remedial courses and worse, end up dropping out..

As Maine’s labor pool continues to contract, due to demographics and as our best and brightest leave the state for greener pastures elsewhere, finding ways to equip our current workforce for the jobs at hand is essential to the state’s economic well-being and any hope for future growth. Envisioning high-tech careers and jobs not yet created might sound good in political sound bites, but real life in many rural areas of Maine is much different.

Maine has an abundance of employers, most offering above average wages, many of them in manufacturing, construction and other skilled trades—yet they can’t find candidates to fill these open positions. I’ve spoken to several firms in our region who are being forced to outsource significant portions of their work, out of state and even out of the country. Cianbro Corporation, one of Maine’s top construction firms, has an immediate need for 400 welders. In addition, they’ve recently signed a contract to produce modules at the former Eastern Fine Paper facility, in Brewer, where they will employ 500 welders, electricians, pipe fitters and other skilled personnel, all of these jobs paying very well.

Rather than mandating that all high school seniors fill out college applications, our workforce needs dictate that we be more innovative in preparing graduates for career success here in Maine. Instead of continuing to rely solely on seat-based, K-16 learning models, the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board supports initiatives and training that will prepare students for the jobs that Maine has to offer, as well as recognizing the importance of lifelong learning. Contrary to conventional rationale, we believe that the economic benefits resulting from alternatives to four-year degree programs are comparable and in some cases even superior in earning potential.

One possible area that could be explored is a “13th year” program that might be facilitated by a partnership between Maine’s regional tech centers and the community college system. For others who’ve graduated from high school and are stuck in dead-end jobs, or are underemployed, work credential programs, like a new statewide initiative called WorkReady™, is one way to help workers acquire the requisite soft skills employers now require. By combining WorkReady™ with additional employer-specific training, it is possible to move someone quickly, from low skills and few options for employment, to having some very marketable skills and thought of having a career, for the first time in their lives.

For students clearly focused on a college career track, Maine’s community colleges are uniquely situated to address the workforce challenges of rural Maine, offering a cost-effective option for graduates. All of these schools offer programs centered on the workplace skills that prepare high school students for high wage jobs in a variety of occupations. Additionally, the Maine Department of Labor sponsors the Maine Apprenticeship Program that does an excellent job preparing workers for viable careers in the state of Maine.

Attempting to get students to focus on life after school is important. Let’s just be sure that the drivers of education in our state take into account the specific workforce needs that Maine’s employers are facing and craft their curriculums to meet those needs. The economic future of our state is dependent on that.

Jim Baumer is the Director of Business Services for the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board. He also serves on the statewide steering committee for the WorkReady™ program.