Donald Fry: Despite education acclaim, Maryland faces workforce development challenges

By Donald C. Fry

Note: This commentary is the second in a series discussing essential prerequisites for a competitive business environment.

Virtually anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television news in our state knows that Maryland’s public schools are ranked first in the nation and have received that ranking from Education Week magazine for three years in a row.

However, despite high rankings for public schools and its renowned public and private higher education resources, our state faces compelling workforce development challenges.

Maryland currently has a highly educated and trained workforce, but lacks the quantity of graduates – particularly in fields related to key emerging business sector – needed to adequately support future growth in the state.

That’s the consensus of Maryland CEOs, entrepreneurs, and experts in business development and retention who participated last year in a months-long series of focus groups from which the Greater Baltimore Committee compiled eight core pillars for economic growth and job creation.

That’s why education is the key to the second core pillar: a workforce that is highly-educated and meets Maryland’s business needs.

It goes without saying that a quality infrastructure for education and workforce development is a cornerstone element for any state that wants to be highly competitive for economic growth, participants in the GBC study agreed.

“Maryland needs to be a step ahead and anticipate workforce needs with regard to emerging industries,” stated the GBC report, Gaining a Competitive Edge, in summarizing the consensus of CEOs and economic developers. “We should be able to say to strategic industry investors that we already have an existing trained workforce ready for you, not that we will train a workforce once you get here.”

The workforce development challenge facing Maryland is definitively framed in a 2010 report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, which estimated that the number of jobs in Maryland will have swelled from 2.8 million in 2008 to 3.1 million in 2018.

By then, Maryland will rank third in the nation for jobs requiring advanced degrees and 11th for jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. With anticipated retirements by baby-boomers, more than 900,000 job vacancies will be generated in Maryland in the next eight years – almost two thirds of which will require post-secondary education, estimates the Georgetown report.

There’s another wrinkle to Maryland’s workforce challenge. For a state where science and technology will play prominent roles in its economic future, Maryland lags behind competing states when it comes to work force development in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), reported a 2009 Governor’s task force on STEM-related issues.

Our state “depends more than most of its competitors on its ability to attract highly-educated workers from other states to satisfy its technical and professional workforce needs,” the University System of Maryland Board of Regents warns in the introduction to the system’s new strategic plan for 2020 adopted last December. The regents acknowledge the state’s deficiencies in STEM education, noting that Maryland currently produces less than two-thirds of the amount of STEM graduates that will be needed by our state’s private sector by 2020.

These are compelling issues for Maryland’s higher education institutions, as well as for students, administrators and teachers in Maryland’s K-12 schools.

Despite the widely acclaimed strength of its education resources, Maryland struggles, more than most of our competing states with issues related to the success of its “academic pipeline,” the progression of students moving into high school and then directly on to college and a bachelor’s degree, according to the USM regents.

Nowhere is the struggle to improve that academic pipeline more dramatically illustrated than in data showing that, despite the high ranking of Maryland’s K-12 education system, more than half of high school graduates in our state who go to college need to take remedial courses in math, English, or reading once they get there.

The remediation data is not skewed by the performance of graduates from a few challenged jurisdictions. The need for remediation extends to counties throughout the state. In 19 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions, more than 50 percent of high school graduates who enrolled in college in the 2007-2008 school year – the most recent for which data is available – needed remedial courses, often only months after they walked across a stage to receive their high school diplomas.

The USM’s strategic plan proposes a number of tactical approaches to meeting private-sector demand for a workforce that is more educated in all disciplines and particularly rich in science, technology, engineering and math.

System goals for 2020 include measures to help increase Maryland’s percentage of adult population with college degrees from 44 percent to 55 percent, to increase the number of graduates with degrees in STEM-related subjects by 40 percent, and to expand the system’s orientation toward economic development.

Strategies to support these goals include strengthening outreach to new or underserved populations, working to develop aid programs for these populations, and expanding the availability and use of online learning.

The plan also includes strategies to work with community colleges to ensure a smooth transfer of students to, and within, USM schools; to bolster resources to USM’s historically black institutions; and to work with the state’s school systems to strengthen the academic preparation of K-12 students.

STEM-related strategies include establishing premium funding for critical STEM programs, developing strong partnerships between STEM departments in universities and local secondary schools, and strengthening programs designed to alleviate key workforce shortages in health care and cyber security.

The USM plan also includes advocating for state-supported scholarships, tuition discounts, waivers and loan forgiveness programs for targeted STEM majors, and instilling a “culture of innovation and entrepreneurship” throughout the system.

Many participants in the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Competitive Edge study favored strengthening incentive programs for workforce development and training as an efficient, effective, yet relatively low-cost way, to nurture such a statewide culture and to demonstrate to businesses that Maryland is interested in investing in its workforce. They cited the Partnership for Workforce Quality and the Maryland Industrial Workforce Training Program, as good examples.

As one participant in the study put it, “the best thing Maryland can do is invest in its workforce.”

Maryland must effectively address a central fundamental certainty: our economic future depends on brainpower. It sounds simplistic, but it’s a clear truth that others around the world are grasping, and that our own 21st century employers are demanding.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Core pillars for growth and job creation focus on nurturing opportunity

New jobs data is sending Maryland a message

McDaniel’s Casey: Twenty-somethings bring a different culture to the workplace

Maryland’s job growth data delivers a sobering business climate reality check

GBC survey shows overwhelming support for pedestrian bridge across Inner Harbor

Taking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to the next level

Transportation funding: Maryland takes one step forward, one step back

New state plan for growth offers sound strategies worth adopting

William Donald Schaefer’s transformative impact

Transportation funding: General Assembly ‘kicks the can’ down a pot hole filled road

‘Invest Maryland’ outcome will gauge depth of state commitment to early-stage funding

How does General Assembly measure up to core pillars of job creation?

Maryland’s jobs recovery is under way, but it’s sluggish

Maryland’s bioscience and technology industries are well worth nurturing

Maybe it’s time to change Maryland’s transportation funding model