Sometimes as economists and policy analysts, those of us trying to find meaning in the mountains of data available to us focus too much on jobs and forget about work.

Last week’s column — about sole proprietors in the professional, technical and scientific services “industry” as the vanguard of Maine’s movement into the knowledge economy of the 21st century — elicited a number of interesting responses.

Selling knowledge and personal expertise has proven to be the road to a better life for many Mainers, often after the initially frightening experience of losing a “real” job.

More broadly, however, this cultural attitude of self-reliance and “making do” goes far beyond professional, technical and scientific services. Maine’s independent entrepreneurs are far more than just the knowledge workers of the 21st century.

According to 2008 Census data (the most recent year for which data are available), Maine had nearly 104,000 non-employer enterprises. In a state where the total number of those “officially” employed is approximately 640,000 and the “official” wage and salary employment is about 580,000, this is a substantial number.

The largest component of this total — nearly 25,000 — is in the construction industry, contractors, independent tradespeople and those providing services to buildings and dwellings. About 6,000 are in the fishing industry. About 4,000 are landlords; 4,700 provide a variety of personal services; 4,100 are artists, writers and performers; 3,300 are health care providers, 3,000 are child care providers; 1,900 are independent auto repair mechanics; 1,500 are bookkeepers, accountants and tax preparers; and 1,500 are truckers.

At the other end of the scale the total also includes several shoe manufacturing enterprises, charter bus services and animal slaughtering and processing.

Together, these small enterprises took in revenue of approximately $4.4 billion, equal in value to nearly 10 percent of the state’s total gross production. This amounted to about $42,000 per business. Average revenues per enterprise ranged from well over $100,000 per year for gas stations, auto dealers and food wholesalers to under $20,000 per year for the 667 home health care businesses, the 244 performing arts companies and the 210 hunters and trappers.

Clearly Maine is a state of small businesses, and these businesses reflect the full variety of products and services we require in our daily lives.

After subtracting expenses, the revenues of most of these enterprises do not leave a lot for personal use.

While independent, individual businesses do not generally command headlines, they are a critical source of support for many Maine families and, in more than a few cases, an avenue for independence and prosperity.

In a world where “creating jobs” seems to be the first priority of everyone running for any political office and simultaneously the most frightening thing to risk for the vast majority of “official” businesses, the need to address the opportunities presented by independent sole proprietors is crucial for the state’s economic recovery.

And undoubtedly the first priority for these businesses is health care. Many of these enterprises could not exist without the support of a family member who has health insurance through his/her “job.”

If we are to fully exploit Maine’s vaunted independence and can-do spirit, we need to find a way to make health insurance affordable to the independent business owner.

Every time a politician promises to revive the economy by “creating jobs,” all those who have created their own jobs should respond in unison: “And how are you going to help those of us who have already done just that get health insurance?”

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]