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Maine needs a better educated workforce. College savings are part of the equation.

Not only is Maine’s workforce old and shrinking, it also is undereducated and undertrained. As a result, employers are already having a difficult time finding workers to fill vacant jobs. The problem will worsen if Maine doesn’t fill this skills gap.

The Finance Authority of Maine, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of education and business interests last week launched a new initiative, Invest in ME, to draw attention to this problem, along with and some solutions, such as encouraging more families to save for education.

Maine’s shortage of workers has been well documented. Without 60,000 new arrivals in the next 20 years, Maine is doomed, economist Charles Colgan warned in 2013. The newcomers are needed to fill job vacancies and to bolster Maine’s tax revenues, which are needed to maintain government services.

Last year, Maine employers reported they had more than 15,000 job openings that were hard to fill. The top reason was that they couldn’t find enough qualified applicants. This is further evidence that more Mainers need to continue their education and training beyond high school.

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Fifty-nine percent of Maine jobs will require some form of postsecondary training by 2018, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Yet in 2010, U.S. Census Bureau data show, just 37.2 percent of Maine’s 25- to 34-year-olds held a postsecondary degree, be it a four-year degree, an associate degree or a specialized skills certificate.

To prevent Maine’s economy from further contracting, the percentage of working-age Mainers with a higher education credential needs to rise to 60 percent, according to FAME Executive Director Bruce Wagner.

Maine is not alone in this challenge. Vermont has set a target of 70 percent of its population having higher education credentials by 2025. Arizona’s goal is 66 percent, a nod to iconic Route 66, which passes through the state.

One way to get there is to make continuing education something that Maine families think about routinely, and for which they save.

Saving money for education, even a small amount, increases the likelihood that students will go to college. University of Kansas researchers report that low- and moderate-income students with up to $500 in college savings are four times more likely to enroll in college than those without any savings. They also are more likely to graduate.

The Harold Alfond Foundation put this thinking into action with its College Challenge, which sets aside $500 for every baby born in Maine. Families can invest the money in a 529 college savings plan, but few do.

FAME provides financial incentives to encourage more families to save for college in the state’s 529 plan, called NextGen. Each year, Maine families who deposit $600 into an account will receive a $300 match from FAME. If Maine families register for automatic deposits into the account, FAME will contribute $100.

Meanwhile, the traditional college-going demographic and the population about to join it, 15- to 24-year-olds, are slated to continue to shrink in Maine — by almost 20 percent between 2010 and 2020, the University of Maine System has projected. So if Maine stands a chance of increasing the percentage of its population with postsecondary degrees, tapping into adult populations is needed to get there.

It’s well known the jobs that are replacing the state’s traditional economy require more education and specialized training. All 10 of the occupations projected to see the fastest job growth through 2024 require a postsecondary credential, most commonly an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, according to state Department of Labor projections.

Convincing those already in the workforce to seek additional training will require more than a “save for education” message, although this is a place to start.

FAME and its partners are right to focus on the education and training of Maine’s workforce. Their message of savings and aspirations lays an important foundation for this work.


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