Now that we’ve waved our flags, eaten our hot dogs and watched the fireworks, it’s time to reflect on what independence means for us in Maine in the daily slog of the 21st-century economy.

For me, this reflection always brings me back to the ideal of equality of opportunity. And nowhere is that better exemplified than in the slow but steady advances made by women in the labor market.

More than any other factor, Maine’s future economic prosperity depends on keeping and attracting more young, educated and ambitious workers. It is interesting, therefore, to look at new-hire data to see what can be learned about Maine’s new workers.

A NARROWING PAY GAP

Over the four-year period from 2011 to 2015, the number of new hires between the ages of 22 and 34 taken on by Maine employers increased from just over 24,000 to nearly 28,000 – an increase of nearly 16 percent. Within this group, the number of women increased by 17 percent, while the number of men increased by just under 15 percent. Thus, our younger workforce is slowly becoming more female.

Even more striking, the average earnings of these young women employees increased by 13.1 percent over the period, rising from $1,637 per month in 2011 to $1,851 in 2015. By comparison, the average increase in the pay of newly hired men ages 22 to 34 increased only 7.5 percent.

Granted, those men still earned $2,344 per month compared to the women’s $1,851, but these newly hired women had reduced the female-to-male pay gap from 78 percent in 2011 to 83 percent in 2015.

One reason for this advance – at least the most obvious difference exhibited by newly hired women evident in labor market data – is education.

In 2015, women made up 54.1 percent of all new hires in Maine who had at least some college experience (including just having enrolled in college for some time, as well as having attained an associate, a bachelor’s or an advanced degree). In other words, women made up a larger portion of the pool of newly hired Maine workers who had some post-high school education.

HOW EDUCATION MATTERS

But this distinction alone does not explain the relative wage gain noted above, since the female share of the “some college” group of new hires stood at 53.6 percent back in 2011. This means that a fuller understanding of the reasons behind the steady improvement in relative wages for women (particularly young women) in Maine demands an examination of other possible explanations.

Harder work, movement into new professions, an ability to balance work and homemaking responsibilities, support from mentors – the reasons could be many. The underlying point is that releasing the full creative potential of all citizens in Maine is the surest way to future prosperity and that, whatever the reasons may be, we are exhibiting positive steps with respect to the growing significance of women in Maine’s workforce.

By the same token, this very advance simultaneously highlights another challenge facing our economy. To the extent that young men do not pursue post-secondary education of some sort, they risk condemning themselves to a futile search for jobs that no longer exist. This simply underlines the fact that real independence for any of us depends on a perpetual struggle to provide equal opportunity for all of us.

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

[email protected]