LEWISTON — For businesses, the growing shortage of qualified workers in Maine has become a problem that threatens to stifle the economy in the state with the oldest median age.

But for young people with vision, it offers an amazing opportunity, educators and company executives told students Tuesday at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center.

“The world is your oyster here in Maine,” said Deanne Sherman, chief executive officer of Dead River Co. and chairwoman of Educate Maine’s board of directors.

Deanne Sherman, chief executive officer of Dead River Co. and chairwoman of Educate Maine’s board of directors, speaks to students at Lewiston Regional Technical Center on Tuesday about the demand for skilled workers in the state. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

A number of business and education leaders who gathered to speak with students enrolled in the Bridge Academy Maine program called for investing in programs that will help high school students transition directly into college or technical programs that will prepare them for jobs.

Emma Williams, who is in her first year at the University of Maine at Farmington, said that signing up for the Bridge Academy program at Lewiston High School prepared her for college and let her rack up 26 credits before she arrived for her freshman year.

“It saved me a lot of time and money,” the aspiring teacher said.

Brian Langley, executive director of the Bridge Academy program, called Emma Williams “a concrete example” of the good it can do.

Emma Williams, a 2019 Lewiston High School graduate, speaks at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center on Tuesday about how Bridge Academy Maine helped her thrive this fall at the University of Maine at Farmington. She is studying to be a teacher. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Her mother, Jen Williams, said the program provided a huge advantage for her daughter because it offered college credit and because she learned skills, such as time management and how to study properly.

It also provided her the confidence to plunge ahead, the mother said.

Jen Williams said her son, David, a junior at Lewiston, got interested in the program, too, because he saw what it had done for his sister. He plans to become an electrician after graduation.

It is “a really good fit” for her children, Williams said, and highly recommended as a way of having youngsters stay local and develop the skills to earn a living.

Sherman said the bottom line is that by 2025, if current trends hold, Maine will find itself short of 158,000 workers who have the skills or credentials to fill expected jobs in the state.

In short, she said, as the population grows ever older, “more job opportunities will be created than there are workers to fill them.”

In six years, Sherman said, the state needs to ensure that 60% of its working adults have the necessary post-high school credentials. Only 46% of them possess those skills now, a bit less than the national average, she said.

“Maine is experiencing a serious skills gap,” Langley said.

Jason Judd, executive director of Educate Maine, said the looming dearth of qualified workers “could be devastating to Maine.”

Brian Langley, executive director of Bridge Academy Maine, tells students at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center on Tuesday that the state needs to do more to help high school students prepare to grab the employment opportunities ahead. Bridge Academy Maine was created in 2011 as part of a state effort to promote early college. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

He said “forceful action” to bolster the number of people with the credentials they need is the only answer to keeping the state’s economy humming.

To hasten the required transformation, Sherman said, Maine needs programs like the Bridge Academy Maine and The Green Ladle program in Lewiston, which teaches students everything about running a restaurant.

“It is an urgent issue,” she said, insisting Maine needs “to build a talent pool to meet our business needs.”

In a report issued Tuesday, ReadyNation said by 2025, the school and young working adult population “is projected to decline as the retiree population drastically increases.”

“The ratio of senior citizens to working adults in Maine will increase 93% by 2030,” much higher than the anticipated rise nationally, the report said.

Maine’s median age is 44.6 years, the oldest in the nation, according to businessinsider.com.

The rapid aging, which is nearly inevitable unless Maine attracts far more immigrants than expected from other states and countries, will lead to more jobs “being created than workers to fill them.”

Langley said Bridge Academy is a collaboration among teachers, business and academia that allows a “whole team of adults” to focus on the students participating in the program. It helps them get both the education and skills to shine on the job, he said.

Its students, he said, are prepared “for these really great-paying jobs” of the future.

Judd said workforce development programs that boost students are crucial for economic progress in Maine.

“That is the challenge of our generation,” he said.


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