Ex-governor speaks on workforce

by Alicia Jennings | 10/23/95 6:00am

The former governor of Maine, John R. McKernan Jr. '70, said the quality of America's workforce is critical in determining the country's future standard of living.

Speaking before about 40 people in the Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences on Friday, McKernan said he thought U.S. public schools do not prepare students for the workforce as well as they prepare students for college.

"I don't believe our schools are producing young people with the skills they need to participate in the workforce," he said.

McKernan suggested a number of possible solutions, including a program based on the European model of youth apprenticeships.

He also cited a pilot program he implemented as governor three years ago as a model for national reform.

Maine's program placed 274 students who had taken specific vocational/technical courses in one of 100 participating business.

McKernan said the program allowed students to gain work experience and businesses to get workers with more job-specific training.

Students are told "if you're not in college-prep, you're not going anywhere anyway," McKernan said.

If so, "you might as well do something useful," he said, noting that in some cases, students are "better off hanging around a business than hanging around school."

He also detailed his support for all forms of competition in education, including charter schools, magnet schools, school choice and alternative credentialling for teachers.

He said as a Republican, his stance on these issues represented a near-180 degree change for him.

McKernan stressed the importance of community support for these programs. The school principal and the head of the local Chamber of Commerce are integral to this type of program, according to McKernan.

McKernan is this year's recipient of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center Distinguished Public Service Award, an award given annually to an alumnus of the College. The award is given in honor of former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller '30.

An innovator for educational reform and school-to-work issues, McKernan served on Labor Secretary Robert Reich's work-based learning task force and authored "Making the Grade," a book about youth apprenticeship programs that he studied in Europe.

He said he first thought of entering politics during the student protests against the Vietnam War in the Parkhurst Administration Building. As he saw his classmates being arrested, he said he felt there was "a better way to affect change than civil disobedience."

He said his time at the College also tested his Republican roots, when his classmates were mostly registered Democrats.

McKernan, who served two terms as Maine's governor and two terms as a Congressman from Maine, is married to Senator Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

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