I have never created a job, but I know that to do so you have to be forward-thinking and optimistic.

That’s hard to do in Maine, in this summer of our discontent. We may not be rioting in the streets, but lately it seems like even our good news is bad.

Congress and the president have just agreed on a deal to avoid default on our bonds and make a down payment of trimming the deficit. Good news? No.

The private sector responded with a stock market crash and a downgrade of our bond rating.

Both branches of government are taking a beating in the polls, with Congress getting a 14 percent approval rating, and you really have to wonder what the 14 percent were thinking.

Maine is hardly the worst place in the country for unemployment, but that’s noting to celebrate.

Our official unemployment rate is 7.9 percent, which lags behind the 9.1 national unemployment rate. If you account for the people who don’t get counted in a household unemployment survey because they have given up looking for work or because they are working part time because they can’t find full-time work. The real rate is more like 15.2 percent, closer but still behind the 16.2 national rate.

If you use the traditional measure, that means 50,000 Mainers are out of work. If you use the alternative figure, it’s closer to 80,000, about the population of Portland and South Portland combined.

What kind of economic turnaround would create between 50,000 and 80,000 jobs here, let alone account for new people coming into the work force?

Reality TV aside (I consider C-SPAN to be reality TV) the crisis facing our nation is a shortage of jobs, not too much debt. A few years of strong economic growth would make the federal budget deficit much more manageable; a few more years like the ones we have just had will dig us deeper in the hole than what’s already been projected.

Maybe it’s true that we can’t grow our way out of deficit spending – although that’s just what we did after World War II and in the 1990s – but we won’t solve the debt crisis without economic growth and that will require jobs.

Everyone agrees on this, but neither party is putting out a plausible way out of this trap. So this problem will be with us for a while.

Even a below-average unemployment rate for Maine is not good news.

It has been well-documented for some time that young people leave the state to find work (this trend may now be slowed by the national job shortage). The loss of young people not only lowers our unemployment rate (because there would probably not be jobs for them if they stayed), but also makes the remaining population older and sicker. That makes Maine a less attractive place to start or expand a business.

It does bode well for one industry: health care. If you look at our classified ads, there are lots of jobs for pharmacists, physical therapists, social workers, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

Good jobs that pay well, and one of the few areas where we can expect to see demand increase thanks to our aging population. According to a study done last year by the Maine Department of Labor Center for Workforce Research and Information, health care is the only occupation projected to have more job openings created by growth than by vacancies in existing positions over the next decade.

It makes sense. As we move forward, the kinds of jobs people can get will be controlled by two forces – technological innovation and globalization.

You can’t replace a nurse with a machine or outsource a physical therapist’s job to India, so these are jobs we can keep here in Maine.

Good news, right?

Maybe not. Virtually every dollar spent on health care comes either from taxes or health insurance premiums. We can’t have an economy that doesn’t create any wealth and draws more and more money out of consumer’s paychecks.

Unbridled growth in the health care sector could turn out to be very destructive unless, as the author of the report now says, it doesn’t happen after all.

John Dorrer, an economist from Brunswick who left the Department of Labor to work for a Boston-based think tank called Jobs for the Future, doesn’t think we can extrapolate from history because there will be pressure to reduce health care costs that will prevent the current trends from continuing.

Given the optimistic name of his organization, Dorrer does think we will see job growth, but it’s hard at this point to say exactly where it will come from. He sees signs that alternative energy and advanced manufacturing could develop enough steam to carry a new economic recovery.

That folks, is about as forward looking and optimistic as it gets these days.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]