For years we have heard about the “skills gap” and how Maine’s relatively low rate of workers with college degrees and vocational certificates creates a brake on the growth of our economy. But it is not the only workforce issue that we face.
Not only do we need workers with more skills, we need more workers. Our population is aging, our birth rate dropping and the growth of our workforce is nearly flat. If something isn’t done, the size of our employed population will actually shrink dramatically over the next decade, sending our economy into a tailspin.
The problem is outlined in a new edition of “Making Maine Work,” a joint project of the Maine State Chambers of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation. It’s the sequel to a 2010 report on the need to improve the skills of Maine workers, which became a key point of discussion in the last gubernatorial election. This report too requires a response from all of the contenders in next year’s election.
The numbers are disturbing: Between 1981 and 1990, Maine’s work force increased by 12,000 a year on average, through population gain and workforce participation (mostly women working for pay outside the home). From 1991 to 2000, the work force grew by 5,000 a year. Between 2001 and 2010, it only grew by 2,500. This trend cannot continue without severe disruption to the living standards of many Maine residents.
But the report does more than document the problem: It also suggests a way to turn it around.
The authors set a goal of increasing the work force by 65,000 people by 2020. To do that, they propose a dual strategy that has worked in the past – increasing participation in the workforce among people who live here and getting more people who live somewhere else to move to Maine.
The first part involves doing a better job with what we’ve got. The report’s authors suggest we could add to the work force 12,000 elderly workers, 6,000 disengaged youth, 5,000 veterans and 10,000 people with disabilities who are not working now. Each of these categories would require different strategies, which could involve government and private sector involvement to train and tailor work environments to accommodate these workers. But if successful, it would improve the state’s economy and the lives of newly employable Mainers.
YOUNG PEOPLE WANTED
The other strategy starts with attracting more young people to Maine, both Maine kids who might otherwise move away and people from other states. Studies show that graduates often choose to make their home close to where they attended college. The state can do more to boost college enrollments (especially among out-of-state students) and businesses could look to provide opportunities for internships and work experience for students that make them want to stay and start a career here.
The last strategy is increasing the number of foreign-born workers. Maine has a long history of assimilating immigrants, and is already known as a welcoming place for refugees. More can be done to increase their numbers and help them fit in. People who have left their homes and traveled across the world to make a new life often need help to start out. But they also can have the kind of drive and ambition that makes them great workers and the kind of people who would start businesses. Immigration is a source of dynamism that Maine cannot afford to overlook.
The good news about this report is that while the numbers look daunting, there are already people working in all these areas. They just need to be increased in size to offset the impact of our shrinking workforce on Maine’s economy.
Nothing has to be started from scratch. All it takes is recognition of the problem and a willingness to do something about it.