Massachusetts currently has 240,000 unemployed citizens, and 120,000 job openings.  These numbers should confuse you.  In today’s economic environment, it is clear we can’t afford such an employment mismatch which experts say is tied to a complex “skills gap” between supply and demand of workers.

In his recent State of the Commonwealth speech, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signaled his intention to address the “skills gap” through major improvements to the state’s Community College system. The Massachusetts example is part of a pattern that exists across the United States and was also a central topic in President Obama’s State of the Union address. The issue speaks directly to how our workforce and our entire economy can remain competitive with global competition. This sounds like the perfect time for a massive dose of innovation.

In Massachusetts, Governor Patrick is calling for a centralized authority for the 15 campuses, a greater emphasis on job training, and a $10 million increase in funding for community colleges that he would like to see matched by $10 million from businesses.

These are not new issues, but the dramatic proposals by the Governor follow months of recent concern. In November, The Boston Foundation released its report “The Case for Community Colleges: Aligning Higher Education and Workforce Needs in Massachusetts” which lays out strong data about the failure of the challenges facing the state’s community colleges and the weaknesses of the highly de-centralized organization of the “system.” The Boston Foundation called for reforms including a more centralized, unified, system and better alignment between curriculum and the needs of industry.

Is this an issue for our organization? Absolutely. Within 24 hours of his speech announcing the project, we joined Governor Patrick , Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and a small group of business and legislative leaders to brainstorm about how to make these changes happen this year. In a press release from the Governor’s office, PBLN Executive Director and President Andrew Tarsy was quoted as saying, “This could not come at a better time and will be a shot in the arm for the economy. We fully support increased funding tied to substantial updates to the structure and alignment of community colleges in Massachusetts. There are many companies ready to be a full partner on this project with the Governor and with the colleges themselves.”

PBLN Board Member Kip Hollister will be leading PBLN’s focus in this area along with David Belluck of Riverside Partners. Kip was quoted in the Governor’s announcement saying that “[w]orkforce development must be a top priority in 2012 and beyond. There is a clear competency gap and reform at the community colleges can only help us develop and retain talent in Massachusetts. This is a fundamental jobs issue and a big step in the right direction.”

Where does it go from here? The biggest challenge will be making sure the college leadership teams see this as an opportunity to become stronger and more prominent and important than ever in the core strategy of the region. If instead this becomes a political turf war, the whole purpose will be lost.  This makes the role of business even more important. If employers play a serious role in the future of these colleges, the success that results will lift everyone.

President Obama captured the heart of the matter in the State of the Union address, placing this issue at the center of the national agenda: “Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My Administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers – places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.”

Sounds like a call to action. We are glad to hear it and eager to answer it.