AUGUSTA — Maine policymakers and business leaders must increase support for older workers as their numbers continue to rise in the oldest state in the nation, a labor expert said Tuesday during a round-table discussion of aging issues.

Mainers ages 45 to 54 are the state’s most educated workers and employers will be hard-pressed to replace them as they retire in the future, said John Dorrer, a labor consultant and former state labor official.

Dorrer spoke to a group of state leaders gathered at the Augusta Civic Center for the fourth and last round-table discussion of aging challenges facing Maine. A larger summit is scheduled for Jan. 17 to further develop policy recommendations for possible legislative action early next year.

Dorrer noted that the number of Mainers working beyond age 65 has increased in recent years, in response to changing economic conditions and shifting attitudes about staying active longer. As a result, the proportion of the state’s work force that’s age 55 and older has increased nearly 10 percent, from 34.7 percent in 2000 to 44.1 percent in 2012, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

“We’ve seen a surge already and that’s expected to continue,” Dorrer said. “We need to negotiate a new deal for how we manage an aging work force. Everyone needs to be more flexible.”

That includes employers valuing the knowledge and skills that older people bring to the workplace, he said, and older workers going back to school or updating their skills in other ways, such as keeping up with technology.

If Maine doesn’t slow the retirement rate, it can expect to face an increasing dearth of skilled workers, Dorrer said. Through 2020, Maine labor officials expect 19,500 job openings annually – 4,400 attributed to job growth and 15,100 attributed to replacement needs, largely because of retirements.

Delaying retirements would help save money on government programs such as Social Security and Medicaid, he said.

Dorrer is an economist who lives in Brunswick and is program director at Jobs for the Future, a Boston consulting firm that helps develop education and career pathways for people who are struggling in today’s economy. He previously served as Maine’s acting labor commissioner and director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information.

Hosted by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, Tuesday’s round-table discussion attracted about 30 participants and 50 audience members who are concerned about Maine’s rapidly aging population.

Maine’s median age – 43.5 years – is the highest in the nation, in part because it has a dwindling younger population, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s proportion of people age 65 and older – 17 percent – is second only to Florida’s 18.2 percent.

Maine also has the nation’s highest proportion of baby boomers – 29 percent of its 1.3 million residents were born in the period from 1946 to 1964 – and they are turning 65 at a rate of 18,250 a year, according to AARP Maine.

By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older, putting the state on the crest of a worldwide trend and magnifying existing shortages in transportation, housing, health care, long-term care and other elder services.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is examining aging issues in an ongoing special series, “The Challenge of Our Age.”

The round-table series and summit are being sponsored by the independent Maine Council on Aging and the John T. Gorman Foundation. The council includes the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, AARP Maine and the Alzheimer’s Association Maine Chapter.

Several round-table participants noted the interconnected nature of aging issues and the need to develop age-friendly communities that are attractive to young people, families, senior citizens and anyone looking for a safe, healthy, enjoyable place to live.

“Whatever you’re working on, there’s an aging component to everything in the state of Maine,” said Barbara Edmond, president of the Maine Philanthropy Center.

Edmond noted that if a community designs sidewalks with ramps for seniors and others with mobility issues, then it makes sidewalks more accessible for everyone, including parents with baby strollers. “We need more of that holistic thinking,” Edmond said.

Dorrer pointed out that a growing number of people commute to jobs outside Maine or telecommute via technology that allows them to work from home. In addition to cultivating more jobs in Maine, Dorrer said it makes sense to make Maine more attractive to people who draw paychecks elsewhere but choose to live and spend their money here.

Several participants also said aging issues cannot be addressed by government alone. They suggested that business organizations have a role in gathering information from their constituents, who face challenges in hiring and keeping qualified employees, including an increasing number of Mainers who are caring for elderly parents.

“(The aging demographic) impacts all businesses in Maine,” said John Hastings, a sales and demographics analyst at Central Maine Power Co.

Dorrer recommended recasting government programs and spending priorities to foster different results without increasing costs, such as linking unemployment benefits to retraining efforts for unskilled workers.

Dorrer and others said potential problems presented by Maine’s aging population also offer opportunities for positive change.

“Our demographics aren’t going to determine our future in a negative way,” said Eves.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard