Rep. Stearns appointed to New England commission on higher education and employability

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BOSTON — The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) has convened members of the Commission on Higher Education and Employability to discuss concrete ways New England employers, education leaders, and policymakers can work together to ensure a successful, equitable workforce future.

State Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, is serving on the commission, along with James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System; Cary-Olsen Cartwright, director of corporate & social responsibility at UNUM; Janet Sortor, chief academic officer of the Maine Community College System; Thomas College President Laurie LaChance; and Judith Wes, senior vice president of Maine Medical Center.

The commission is chaired by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo.

According to Stearns, “It is imperative that we use the available data to influence what we are providing students, in order that they have the skills necessary to be employed in good paying careers. This is not an ‘either or’ proposition between skilled trades and four-year degree preparation – we need both. We currently have 1,100 unfilled jobs in Maine, across several sectors, that require high level technology and critical thinking skills. At the same time, we know that we are facing an immediate and future shortage of trades and services requiring ‘middle level’ technology skills, such as how to operate and work with certain software and machinery applications. Instruction needs to align with employability.”

During two key meetings in Providence, R.I., the commission began charting a strategic action plan to align the work of stakeholders in several key areas, including: the effective use of labor market data; planning, advising and career services; targeted higher education-industry partnerships; work-integrated, cooperative and internship-based learning; new economy digital skills bundles; and emerging credentials.

“Our region faces a fast-changing modern economy, as well as challenging demographic shifts,” noted NEBHE President and CEO Michael K. Thomas, “and it’s time that we optimized how higher education works with other stakeholders in our regional economy — starting by providing our students with the right skills to match tomorrow’s jobs.”

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s most recent “Knocking at the College Door” reports that the number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to decline by 14 percent over the next 15 years. This education pipeline trend worries employers, who are already concerned about a shortage of skilled workers.

Stearns says the work of aligning business needs with educational opportunity is underway in Maine. The Harold Alfond Foundation has a commitment to pay student debt for STEM graduates that stay in Maine. There is also ongoing work by the Maine STEM Council to provide Maines K-12 schools with resources and guidance in this area.

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