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March 26, 2013 | last updated March 26, 2013 1:27 pm

Q&A: Building a work force Maine employers need

Photo / Darren Fishell
Photo / Darren Fishell
Tanna Clews, executive director of Educate Maine, says the nonprofit's Project>Login effort to double Maine's computer science and IT graduates in four years could serve as a model for work force development in other areas.

Starting with about $800,000 in committed funds, the nonprofit Educate Maine hopes to double the number of computer science and IT graduates from Maine colleges and universities in four years. Mainebiz spoke with Tanna Clews, executive director of the organization, to discuss the collaboration with the University of Maine System, called Project>Login.

The project's goal — funded by 10 employers and organizations (Bangor Savings Bank, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, Idexx Laboratories, MaineHealth, Maine Medical Center, Pierce Atwood, TD Bank, University of Maine System, Unum and WEX) — is to graduate 142 computer science/IT students from the UMaine system each year. In 2012, the system produced 71 graduates in those fields. Illustrating the need for those workers, the seven major employers funding Project>Login say they expect to hire between 500 and 700 workers in that field in the next five years.

The following is an edited transcript:

Mainebiz: How will Project>Login measure its progress? What does success look like?

Clews: Obviously, the goal that everybody has heard about is the doubling of the CSIT degrees in four years. That's fairly easy to quantify, right? In terms of metrics for college degrees, we're looking at small increments in the first year — we're looking at an additional 10% to enroll in these programs and to build on that over time.

What's more difficult to measure is the engagement of middle school and high school students. So, that's something that we're still kind of working through and thinking about metrics. We're looking at the number of schools we interact with; the number of teachers who are involved; how many students we touch through various STEM activities.

M: How does Project>Login fit into Educate Maine's overall goals?

C: We're always making the case that education is the No. 1 impactor, if you will, of the economy: having an educated work force means our economy is going to grow. So, being able to administer a program where we're able to really connect the needs of the employers with the education community is exciting for us.

What we're particularly interested in — and why I think [the employers] first approached us — is because we have this opportunity to build a template for other work force shortage areas. While the companies who stepped forward to fund Project>Login are particularly interested in computer science and technology, this is something we could potentially apply to nursing or manufacturing or something else.

M: Once students are trained in Maine, how do you keep them here?

C: I think that that's a far larger problem than just for Project>Login. I think for us, in particular, having an internship program where students have an opportunity to intern at companies in Maine is probably the most likely way we'll be able to keep them. We know that 70% of students who intern get hired by that company. That's obviously an enticement to hook these kids now, but it's also a larger enticement to the economy to have these these educated young people staying in the state.

We have done a survey of the students in these degree programs and what we know is that two-thirds are very interested in an internship. So making sure that we're able to link them and provide information for these internships is really important.

M: What's the incentive for these companies to hire full-time staff rather than using contract work?

C: These aren't short-term positions, but positions that they need and that they're going to continue to need to grow. I also think there is a desire on the part of these companies to hire people who are committed to Maine and who want to stay in this area.

For publicly traded companies, what are their boards saying? Their boards may not be necessarily committed to staying in Maine, but they are. So, one of the things that they do is increase the number of educated workers in the area.

WEX or Idexx, they don't necessarily want to leave the state of Maine and this is one of the ways that they're digging in their heels and saying "we aren't going to leave the state just because we have a shortage in this area of workers. We're going to do something about it."

M: Is there any concern about the project being Portland-centric?

C: There's this constant tension essentially between Portland and the rest of the state. We know that the majority of employers hiring in this [project] are in the Portland area, but this really is a statewide effort because we know there are employers in all parts of the state who are looking for and needing this computer science work force.

But again, we're about to do a reception up in Fort Kent. Particularly, Educate Maine, is very cognizant that we can't just be Portland or Southern Maine-focused but that this is a statewide problem and we need to do something about it.

M: How important are the partnerships with Maine employers?

C: Partnerships are absolutely key not only to fund this program, but also we can't have a web page with just 14 internships listed. We need to have as many employers as possible offering internships.

We have about 70 people from 35 or more companies who have volunteered for this project and almost all of those are middle- to senior-level executives. Having run a number of nonprofits, [I think] it's very unusual to have this caliber of professional volunteering.

M: How do you address the problem of retention?

C: If we could retain the kids who sign up initially for these [degree] programs, we would reach our goal. And there's any number of reasons why they may be leaving. They're maybe not prepared for that career and maybe didn't take courses they needed in high school. Maybe they signed up but aren't committed to that particular program.

Our college retention team is holding four receptions at the different schools. It's an opportunity for [students] to interact with and engage with not just potential employers or intern companies but to talk to actual people in these career fields. It's not just kids showing up with resumes. It's really a networking opportunity for these kids to come in and to meet with these representatives who might be just five or three years older talking about what their career is like.

We need to show them these are great careers and high-paying careers and this isn't out of their reach.

M: What has been the most satisfying part of the project so far?

C: Probably the campus receptions. UMaine Augusta was maybe a-week-and-a-half ago and we had 80-plus people there, almost all of whom were students. We brought in eight or nine employers and what's really cool is that it's not just one person from these companies. They are recruiting three or four people, many of whom are Maine students or went to these schools, graduated and went to work for their companies.

It's also great seeing some of the articulation agreements that are starting to take place between community colleges and the University of Southern Maine. They've already tweaked some things to make the transfers easier. USM has changed their calculus classes for some of these degree programs. One of the things they learned early on is that the type of math and statistics these companies need were not necessarily in line with what USM was teaching — a really quick fix, right? So, by the following year, they had changed those courses so they were more in line.

At USM and Orono, their deans have done a really good job of reaching out to employers and asking "What do you need?" and being able to shape those programs. That's happening at community colleges as well. SMCC has been very quick to adapt when they hear their employers need something. That's really great to see and if we could just apply to that the whole state, that would be awesome.

M: What would make you happy to see by the end of the project?

C: Certainly, reaching our goal would be fantastic. I think we can't really put a price tag on increasing our educated work force. We know that the highest-demand and highest-paid jobs require these advanced degrees — these higher post-secondary degrees in these fields — so what would that mean for the state of Maine?

Again, this isn't just about these [seven] employers; it's about the overall economy. We know our demographics are pretty dreadful: We're a graying state with more people leaving than coming, right? So, if we could even just change that a little and demonstrate that we have this educated work force — in particular, in these CSIT degrees — I would hope that we'd see companies not just staying, but we'd see companies coming to the area as well.

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