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The more you learn, the more you earn

09/21/2006- The Berkshire Eagle

 As Berkshire County experiences a change in the types of jobs needed to support the region, opportunities are surfacing in vibrant new employment sectors in the areas of the arts, technology and specialty manufacturing. Many of these new opportunities require education beyond a high school diploma.

In an attempt to understand how we can better provide educational opportunities to our county residents, the Berkshire County legislative delegation supported an effort led by Dr. Mary K. Grant, president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and introduced the Berkshire Compact for Higher Education. The Compact is comprised of leaders from key employment sectors, including cultural institutions, healthcare and specialty manufacturing. They are joined by school superintendents, college administrators and faculty, municipal government officials and representatives of nonprofit organizations. The group was charged with assessing the educational needs of County residents and developing strategies to better serve their needs.

Berkshire County, once full of well-paying job opportunities for high school graduates, has shifted to an economy that requires post secondary education and/or specialized training to access well-paying jobs.

As a County, we must provide our residents with opportunities to pursue post secondary education. A 2004 report by The College Board offers the following eye-opening information:

| In 2003, full-time workers with four-year college degrees earned approximately 62 percent more than full-time workers with only a high school diploma.

Earnings for those with Masters Degrees were nearly twice as much per year as for those with high school diplomas, and those with professional degrees earned more than three times as much per year as high school graduates.

Even those with some college experience, but no degree, earned about 16 percent more than those with just a high school diploma, and adults with associate's degrees earned approximately 22 percent more than those with a high school diploma.

The message is clear: The more you learn, the more you earn.

However, in Massachusetts and Berkshire County, access to higher education can pose a financial burden on many, resulting in too many residents lacking the skills to compete in the local job market and leading too many employers to look elsewhere to fill open positions within their companies.

Those who continue their formal education beyond high school find that their earning potential increases exponentially. Moreover, those with only a high school diploma have an unemployment rate nearly three times higher than those with a professional degree. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that, by 2010, more than 42 percent of all jobs in the economy will require a vocational certificate, an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree or higher. Most of the jobs available to those without a degree will be low-paying jobs with little or no potential for growth.

The single critical defining issue in any region's economic future will be the quality and depth of its labor force. This means Berkshire County must ensure that its residents have the skills they need to compete. Previously, people went to where the jobs were; now the opposite is true. In this new, knowledge-based economy, jobs and employers will remain in a community if there is an indigenous workforce available to fill open positions.

 

Berkshire County residents must be prepared to meet the demands of its new economy, which focuses on knowledge and specialized labor. Workplaces are not static; as industries change and technologies evolve, skill demand changes, too.

 

The mission of the Berkshire Compact for Higher Education is to help every resident of Berkshire County attain at least 16 years of education and training. In supporting the mission, the goals of the Compact have been determined and are:

 

* To change the old belief that high school graduation is the end of the educational process

* To improve access to education, training, and lifelong learning

* To make Berkshire County a competitive location for the new technology and knowledge-based economy

* To develop a new "social contract" among employers, employees and educational institutions that encourages learning, earning, and civic engagement

 

President Grant said, "While we have made strides toward attaining the vision that post-secondary education must be available to everyone -- nationally and in Berkshire County -- there is still work to be done. We are convinced that our success is rooted in a strong educational continuum that encourages and rewards innovation, raises aspirations, ensures access, values lifelong learning, and takes advantage of the power of technology."

 

The results of striving for higher education for all are a more affluent, productive economy, a more affluent, productive individual, and a vibrant community that simultaneously reaps the benefits and gives back to its residents.