Essay: Specific workforce training for early- and mid-career Islanders

On Dec. 29, The MV Times posed the question, “What are your wildest dreams for Martha’s Vineyard in the next 25 years?” Respondents offered ideas to improve opportunities for affordable housing through schemes with land conservation and taxing seasonal rentals. While these issues dominate the public discourse, and rightly so, two respondents expressed the dream of having a community college or college on the Island.

In the absence of a physical college, Adult and Community Education of MV (ACE MV) has been working toward that dream by providing local access to continuing and higher education for Islanders. This new strategic focus is the result of a 2015 adult education needs assessment that ACE MV conducted with UMass Medical School. As stated in its recently updated five-year strategic plan, ACE MV’s priority is to focus its resources on “designing and delivering high-impact, specific workforce training and credit-bearing programs for early- and mid-career Islanders.” ACE MV does not expect to ignore the dream of establishing an Island-based college, but, hopefully, that will come in time. We learned many lessons from the fate of the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, the Island’s first college, which opened in the ’70s and closed in the early ’90s. Now ACE MV’s mission is to support educational opportunities beyond high school that enhance the ability of Vineyard residents to meet their career goals first, and personal enrichment goals second. The vision underlying this mission is to strengthen the Island economically — to make it a viable place to live and work.

ACE MV has become the only Island organization offering graduate-level degree programs, college credit, and a broad array of credentialed workforce trainings for all Islanders. Over 250 Islanders have completed requirements to gain licensure or credits in landscaping, construction, large machine operation, and commercial driving in the past two years. A group of Island schoolteachers will earn master’s degrees in education in a program offered in partnership with Fitchburg State University this December. Our career tracks in business, education, healthcare, and technical training are also open to high school students at a reduced fee. These opportunities allow young people to experience a workplace atmosphere and learn side-by-side with business owners. This arrangement encourages mentor relationships and creates a more experiential learning environment than traditional schooling. ACE MV’s dream is to serve the educational needs of all Islanders with as much encouragement and support as those who go off Island to college receive.

Adult education and skill development are important drivers of our year-round economy. This view has been supported by Michael Goodman, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at UMass Dartmouth, who gave an address at the Harbor View Hotel last year in which he stated that 16 percent, or more than 2,000 Islanders, are at or below the poverty level. His data also showed that our unemployment rate continues to be historically higher than the Massachusetts average, and yet ⅓ of our Island workforce arrives by boat each day.

The need for workforce education is also on the commonwealth’s agenda. In November 2016, the Globe published a front-page article on how the demand for vocational schools as alternatives to traditional high schools has “soared.” A new Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report shows that more than 3,000 students were on waiting lists for vocational technical schools in Massachusetts last year. Meanwhile, employers reported they have trouble filling jobs that require technical skills, and anticipate an even greater demand for the qualifications that graduates of secondary vocational schools provide. The report reminds us that the less education one has, the more likely the person will fall into a low-income bracket. Data show that graduates of vocational high schools show better employability and higher lifetime earnings than traditional high school graduates who do not go on to college.

Our updated strategic plan includes a secondary goal of “offering intellectual and practical enrichment opportunities for the Island’s growing late-career and retired population.” Our plan for the present is to offer a small number of high-quality liberal arts courses that may serve as the groundwork to building an Island higher education institution. However, in a strict directive to ourselves, the best use of ACE MV’s limited resources in the next five years will be to focus on education and skill development for the year-round working population. ACE MV’s goal is increasing public and private investment in postsecondary education aimed at boosting individual earning capacity and increasing the numbers in the workforce who can live on the Island. Affordable and experiential learning available at our doorstep will contribute to making the lives of Islanders of all ages less fragile, less unsure, and more meaningful.

ACE MV happily joins the conversation around the major issues that other nonprofits and our local governments face. We believe that the ability of Islanders to access continuing education is closely tied to the other challenges facing Islanders. ACE MV is eager to join with others to invest in those who will live in the affordable housing, those who will enjoy the open space, and those who want to continue to live and work on the Island into their old age.

Sam Hart, ACE MV executive director

Judy Miller, chair, ACE MV board of directors