The holy grail for those who want economic development is jobs. “We need jobs,” they say, “good jobs, high-paying jobs, more jobs, jobs for our kids right here in Maine.”

Trouble is, jobs aren’t the purpose of economic activity. No enterprise – be it a private business, a nonprofit or a government agency – creates a job for the sake of creating a job. They create jobs because they have work that needs to be done, products to make, services to be provided. The key to job creation is not exhortations by politicians and economic development professionals to do it, but investment by those responsible for running enterprises or starting new ones.

And investment comes from confidence about the future, from a conviction that enough people out there will want what I offer tomorrow to justify my expanding production capacity – in buildings, equipment and new workers – today. And it is in just this confidence that Maine faces its greatest challenge.

First, consider Maine’s relative performance in one area of investment: residential construction. Between 2001 and 2005, an index of the value of residential construction contracts in Maine rose 82 percent. This exceeded both the 75 percent increase for the U.S. as a whole and the 61 percent increase for New England as a whole.

Jump forward to the 2005 through 2009 period of the Great Recession and again Maine fares relatively well. The value of residential construction contracts here fell by 60 percent – a big drop to be sure, but less than the New England drop of 66 percent and the national drop of 71 percent.

But jump forward to the “recovery” period of 2009 through the 12-month period ending in October 2014, and Maine stands out for a different reason. Over this period, the value of residential construction contracts nationwide jumped 87 percent, and in New England, they jumped 99 percent. But in Maine, they increased at a far more leisurely 26 percent.

Next, consider nonresidential construction – investment in new commercial, industrial and governmental buildings and equipment, clearly the best expression of confidence in the future and a harbinger of job creation. Here, an even more dire pattern emerges. Between 2001 and 2007 (nonresidential construction peaked later than housing), this index for Maine rose 40 percent, far exceeding the 15 percent increase for New England as a whole and nearly equaling the nationwide increase of 42 percent.

Jump forward to the 2007 through 2009 period of the Great Recession. The value of nonresidential construction contracts in Maine fell by 53 percent, in this case more than the New England drop of 32 percent and the national drop of 29 percent.

Then consider the “recovery” period of 2009 through the 12-month period ending in October 2014, and see how Maine’s challenge pops into clear focus. Over this period, the value of nonresidential construction contracts nationwide increased 16 percent. In New England, they rose by 18 percent. But in Maine, there has been no recovery. Over this most recent period, nonresidential investment here fell another 6 percent. How can we create jobs when we aren’t maintaining our capacity to produce?

Prattling on about jobs may make us feel virtuous. And pointing at others may keep blame at bay for a bit. But until we focus on investment, we’re wasting our time. The holy grail is not jobs but confidence – what Keynes famously called “animal spirits.” Until we can find and express confidence about this place here on the earth that we call Maine, all the attention we devote to the idea of “creating good jobs” amounts to nothing more than nervous fingering of a band of worry beads.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]