The one thing all candidates can agree on

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Excerpt from the final report of the Connecticut Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth.

There is not much consensus among our gubernatorial candidates this election cycle, but one topic that appears to have generated genuine agreement is that Connecticut needs to do more to ensure our state has the talent it needs for the economy to thrive.

It seems every day we read about manufacturers that have thousands of unfilled jobs due to the lack of skilled workers.   We have a burgeoning start-up community that is straining to keep growing companies here because they cannot find enough software engineers at their fingertips.  State leaders warn all sectors are at risk without a more skilled and robust cyber security workforce in place.  The Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth finds the largest disparity in workforce supply and demand is among healthcare practitioners.

But what can be done about these challenges?   Pilot projects, short-term solutions and initiatives that only look at one part of the problem are stop-gap measures that Connecticut can no longer afford to pursue.  Leaders of higher education – public and private — businesses, philanthropy and other stakeholders need to be brought to the table by our next governor to address the issue head on with a comprehensive strategy informed by data to address the shortage of workers in all of the state’s key industry sectors.

Fortunately, our future governor does not have to look hard, or far, for examples of what to do.

Around the country, states are working on this issue by convening stakeholders, looking at data, setting goals and then putting a strategy in motion.

Rhode Island, for example, recently launched a multi-prong strategy – “HigherRI” – to ensure 70 percent of all citizens have a post-secondary credential by 2025.  This neighboring state of ours is working with stakeholders from public and private higher education institutions, employers, students and community organizations to make progress towards achieving that smart goal.  Aligning post secondary programs with labor market demand is just a piece of the strategy being addressed.  This comprehensive effort recognizes that a broader percentage of the state’s citizen’s must also have access to a post-secondary education if the state’s workforce needs are to be fulfilled.

Similar efforts are taking place in New Hampshire (65 x 25 Working Group), Tennessee (Drive to 55), Oregon (40-40-20), Arizona (Achieve 60AZ), as well as in other states.

Why is it so critical that a comprehensive strategy be put into motion to make sure Connecticut builds the workforce of the future?  Because the challenge is more complicated than just encouraging more young people to major in STEM.

Significant equity gaps must be addressed in our state as well in order to truly have the skilled workforce our future economy will require.

Projections from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce indicate that by 2025 Connecticut’s economy will require a workforce in which 70 percent will have some education beyond high school.  Right now, we are at 54 percent.  While we have one of the most highly educated workforces in the country, there’s no way we can meet that goal without expanding access to higher education.

A report released this summer by the national non-profit organization EdTrust found that the education attainment gaps (the number of adults with an Associate’s degree or above) between white adults and adults of color is greater in Connecticut than in almost every other state in the country. Connecticut ranks dead last in the attainment gap that exists between white and African American residents and fifth from the bottom for the degree attainment gap between Latino and white residents.

Further, state funding for scholarships for needy Connecticut residents has been slashed in recent years.  A recent report from the Hechinger Group found only 20 percent of eligible students get a state, need-based grant in Connecticut — putting our state in the top five with most unmet need for its citizens.

In a time when the candidates cannot agree on just about anything, it’s heartening that all seem to recognize this issue is an important one.  Connecticut cannot wait any further to be proactive. Our states’ citizens and our employers are in desperate need of a comprehensive, long-term strategy to close the disparities that exist between both in access and demand.

If other states can do it, Connecticut can do it too.

Jennifer Widness is President of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges.


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