EdLink partnership is key to region's future

04/23/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

As Massachusetts officials contemplate how to bolster the state's economic competitiveness in the face of fierce national and international pressure, they are likely to focus their efforts on strengthening the economic center of the state -- Greater Boston -- and overlook the promise of the state's other regional economies, including the North Shore, Merrimack Valley, the South Shore and the Berkshires.

This strategy would be a missed opportunity.

Strengthening the regional economies outside of Greater Boston may hold the key to resolving some of the major economic dilemmas facing the state, including high housing costs, population decline and the loss of highly skilled workers to other states.

This conclusion was brought home with particular force by a recent MassINC report, Reconnecting Massachusetts Gateway Cities. This report found that as "Greater Boston has evolved into an even more dominant focal point of the Massachusetts economy," this trend "is vexing the state's housing markets, distorting land-use patterns, and likely complicating the state's labor force challenges."

The Northeast region is well positioned to become one of the state's major centers of economic growth and innovation. This is a dynamic area but one that also faces major challenges. Middlesex and Essex Counties are the most highly educated regions of the state, with 56 percent and 46 percent of their residents respectively having earned a college degree.

The number of college-age residents is expected to increase significantly, which presents both an opportunity as well as a challenge to meet the growing demand for post-secondary education.

As presidents of the major public colleges and university serving the North Shore and Merrimack Valley, we have embarked on a major collaborative effort to better position our institutions to serve the region's educational, economic and cultural needs. Combining the strengths of University of Massachusetts Lowell, Salem State College, Middlesex Community College, Northern Essex Community College and North Shore Community College, EdLink is a network of public higher education institutions that seeks to identify and implement regional solutions that promote economic development and cultural advancement.

Our effectiveness in achieving these goals will depend upon the partnerships we forge within the communities we serve, including with business, K-12 public education, civic and other non-profits and government. On April 26-27, the EdLink institutions are leading an international conference at UMass Lowell on "Community-University Partnerships: How Do We Achieve the Promise." The conference will provide an opportunity for public higher education, business, community and legislative leaders to learn about best practices from the U.S. and around the world and discuss their relevance to the Northeast region.

One particular focus of the conference will be on the role of public higher education in urban revitalization. Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and Dr. Dana Mohler-Faria, the governor's advisor on education, will join us to discuss lessons learned and potential strategies that can be applied to revitalizing the North Shore's gateway cities of Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell and Lynn.

In the past year, the EdLink institutions have created several partnerships to help develop the highly skilled and adaptable workforce that can meet the current and future needs of business and industry in the northeast region. Of the 20 fastest growing occupations, 16 require some level of post-secondary education. Our member institutions are working with companies to create specialized workforce development programs and with the broader regional business community to more accurately assess and fill their labor needs.

The health-care sector has tremendous potential as an area of sustained economic growth and a source of high paying jobs in the region, but there are critical skill shortages that must be addressed. Some examples of the type of collaboration we need to promote are Middlesex Community College's partnership with Lahey Clinic in developing a part-time nursing program for Lahey employees. The partnership also benefits MCC's nursing students who are able to use Lahey's advanced facilities. Northern Essex Community College launched a new associate in science degree in paramedic technology. Graduates will be prepared to help fill the critical shortage of certified paramedics. North Shore Community College is developing a new program to help low-literacy adults prepare for and succeed in occupational and technical programs, like the Child Development Associate program for Spanish-speaking workers in the home-based child care field.

Another example of the kinds of collaboration that benefits the entire region is in the area of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. A joint UMass Lowell-Salem State initiative with regional K-12 seeks to enhance student knowledge and interest in these high-demand fields.

Many of these partnerships are in their early stages, but they have the potential to help us solve a range of complicated employment, educational, health and other problems. By working together, we have an opportunity to make the North Shore a magnet for new investment and jobs and an engine of economic growth for all of Massachusetts.

This column was written by Wayne M. Burton, president of North Shore Community College; Carole A. Cowan, president of Middlesex Community College; Nancy D. Harrington, president of Salem State College; David Hartleb, president of Northern Essex Community College; and David MacKenzie, interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell.