Bond Questions 2, 4, and 5: Maine needs to invest in higher education for struggling workers

Thirty-six percent of the building stock at the University of Maine is 50 or more years old. Dwight Eisenhower was president when the state built most of the lab space. Classrooms and laboratories at the seven university campuses and community colleges are outdated, overcrowded, and have deteriorated with time.

These are our public institutions. We rely on them to prepare Maine’s workforce, equip workers with job skills they need to boost their wages, provide for their families, and fuel our economy.

Questions 2, 4, and 5 on the November 5 ballot will raise $35.5 million to repair buildings, expand classrooms, install energy efficiency measures, upgrade science, nursing, and computer laboratories, replace obsolete science equipment, and enhance distance learning.

UMO Stevens Hall, 2010 Photo by Jay Preston

These improvements will accommodate increased enrollment, attract more students, and provide modern skills for today’s most in-demand jobs like nursing, computer technology, precision machining, culinary arts, and a host of science programs (including zoology, marine biology, chemistry, and physics) essential for jobs in Maine’s fast growing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupations.

Consider that:

The University of Maine system has experienced a 30% increase in STEM baccalaureate graduates over the past five years.

The Maine Community College has a waiting list for 84 of its degree programs with 4,000 students queued up for the next available opening. 

The Maine Maritime Academy is poised to become a premier research facility for the marine transportation industry providing hands-on instruction in engineering, transportation, and business.

In the past nine months alone,  1,200 job postings for engineers have arisen in MaineYet, Maine ranks a dismal 47th among the states in per capita production of engineers.

Demand for STEM jobs will grow by 22% over the next four years; and, over the next decade, one in seven jobs will require a STEM education.

The need is there. The demand is there. We must make sure that Maine’s public higher education institutions are there with the facilities and equipment needed to prepare our workers to seize these opportunities.

Expanding the colleges’ capacity to enroll more students will enable Mainers who want to go back to school.  According University of Maine System Chancellor (UMS) James Page, more than 240,000 adults in Maine today started, but never finished, a college degree. That’s more people than live in the greater urban Portland area. That’s nearly a quarter of Maine’s entire population who are not realizing their full potential.

Most of today’s jobs require some postsecondary training beyond high school. Workers without a college degree earn significantly less. In low wage jobs, they struggle to provide their families with food, housing, health care, and other basic necessities.

This year, the Legislature’s workforce and economic future committee successfully sponsored legislation designed to help adults complete their degrees. A new task force will look at ways to find and encourage former students to return to college. A UMS scholarship program will help them pay for tuition.

But for the effort to persuade struggling workers back to school is to succeed, our colleges and universities must be prepared to accommodate them. They need to be modern and first-class. They must offer facilities to accommodate more students and the programs they need to secure good jobs.

Questions 2, 4, and 5 not only make important investments in our public higher education, they also invest in the potential of Maine people to acquire new skills, get better jobs, and earn more to support themselves and their families. A better educated workforce will benefit all of us.