For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

– H.L. Mencken

Last summer, the Maine Technology Institute released a report aimed at helping it – and thereby Maine – define an investment strategy to accelerate our economic growth.

Prepared by a team from the Battelle Institute, a worldwide research organization, the report’s most important conclusion was that “for economic development to occur, an entire interconnected sequence of positive factors has to be in place.” Successful economic development, it continued, is unlikely to occur “if any link in the chain is missing.”

While perhaps obvious, this clear assertion is critical as a starting place for addressing Maine’s most fundamental problem: creating, attracting and filling new, high-paying jobs, without which we will continue to struggle over how to slice the ever-shrinking pie that state legislators and municipal officials face each year. In that desperate struggle, it is all too easy to grasp at simple straws – lower taxes, less regulation, better education, more entrepreneurship – for “the answer.” And all are undoubtedly important. But alone, each is no more than a link in the chain.

The Battelle study does cite several of these weak links: our university and industry R&D, new business startup rate, availability of venture capital, and broadband infrastructure and usage all lag national averages; our pool of skilled talent is limited; and our general business tax climate is middle of the road. But the study also identifies 10 “detailed product/service market growth opportunities” that could provide avenues for future prosperity, ranging from aquaculture and food products to molecular-based diagnostics and genomics and wireless sensor networks.

These “market opportunities” offer clear and precise targets for economic development investments rather than generalized platitudes for gross policy change. These are the areas where our elected officials ought to be directing their attention.

And just what are the policies required to grasp these opportunities? Three stand out as being of particular importance.

n First, link public and private investments more closely. Rather than offering general inducements and hoping for responses, public funds should be allocated so as to magnify existing private initiatives. We should think targeted and big rather than spread across the board and therefore small.

n Second, build on our nascent efforts to support entrepreneurship. And not just by praising new ideas with faint funding, but by helping growing businesses to grow more, to overcome the post-startup challenges now largely ignored.

n Third, we need to link capital and talent development. Programs that combine the “soft skills” of communications, teamwork and critical thinking with the practical experience of the shop floor, the lab and the frenzy of actual marketplaces need to be identified and supported.

The weak link of inadequate talent cannot be addressed by either the business or the education sector alone. This, of all areas, requires true partnerships. And that is the clearest message of the Battelle report: We must work together to define and pursue a Maine-specific investment strategy. There is no simple answer. There is no instruction manual. We must find our own way.

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

[email protected]