Nothing crystallizes Maine’s employment problem like a careful perusal of the basic labor force numbers. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of employed Mainers increased by 25,380, or 4 percent. Over the same period, the number of unemployed Mainers decreased by nearly 30,000, or 53 percent. As a result, we gained over 25,000 jobs while our labor force actually declined by nearly 4,600 people.

Clearly, this is not a sustainable path. We simply cannot continue to create more employment opportunities – or, more precisely, we cannot continue to fill these opportunities – while our labor force keeps declining. We must attract more younger workers to Maine – both young natives who have left and any others we can convince to come.

Given this “attraction” problem, it is enlightening to examine the basic labor force numbers noted above for various urban centers and their surrounding rural peripheries throughout Maine.

In Aroostook County, for instance, unemployment dropped 46 percent from 2010 to 2016, while employment fell 5 percent and the labor force declined by 9 percent. In Presque Isle, the numbers were even more bleak, with unemployment dropping by 63 percent, employment falling by 6 percent and the labor force declining by 9 percent. Here, the labor force problem was even more pronounced in the county’s urban center than in its rural surrounding towns.

In Penobscot County and Bangor, a somewhat different pattern emerges. Here, there is no appreciable difference between the labor market performance of the county as a whole and its urban and rural components. In Bangor, unemployment fell by 56 percent between 2010 and 2016, employment grew by 2 percent (328 jobs) and the labor force declined by 2.7 percent (a net loss of 470 workers). In percentage terms, these changes were virtually the same for Penobscot County as a whole and for communities in the county other than Bangor. In sum, the labor market performance was about the same throughout the region.

For Portland and Cumberland County, a different pattern emerges. In Cumberland County, employment increased by 10,125 jobs between 2010 and 2016. This growth was fed by a 54 percent decline in unemployment (about 5,500) and a 3 percent growth in the labor force (just over 4,600 people). This, of course, was a welcome trend for economic growth – one almost certainly fed by a southern migration of people from the state’s western, northern and eastern hinterlands. However, in this region, the greater labor market dynamism was found in the rural periphery rather than in the urban core.

In Portland, unemployment fell by 58 percent (nearly 1,500 people) and employment grew by 5 percent (about 1,760 people), with the result that the labor force increased by 266 people, or 0.7 percent. (Note: These figures refer not to jobs located in Portland, but to households in the city in which one or more members has a job.)

In Cumberland County but outside of Portland, labor market numbers were even stronger. Unemployment dropped by 4,000 (53 percent), and employment grew by nearly 8,400. As a result, the labor market in this suburban area grew by nearly 4,400. While some businesses undoubtedly grew in this area, the bulk of the jobs held by residents of suburban Cumberland County are, in fact, located in the city of Portland.

The conclusions to be drawn are:

• The economic engine of the state is clearly the Portland area. The growth of the labor force in Cumberland County over the past six years (4,633 people) is virtually equal to the overall decline in the state’s labor force over the same period (4,558 people). In many ways, it may simply illustrate the fact that able-bodied Maine workers are simply “voting with their feet” by moving to where there is some job growth.

 The continued success of the Portland region clearly depends on an effective interplay between urban jobs and suburban housing, transportation and social services. Continued job growth in the region depends on city and town governments working with employers to facilitate all the conditions necessary for growth. It does “take a village” to create the conditions for sustainable economic growth.

• The urban-periphery interplay so important to the Portland area’s continued growth is also the model for trying to spread that growth to other areas. It would be a waste of resources to try to have all communities across the state seek a return to their economic glories of the past. The model for healthy economic regions is the combination of a competitive urban-village employment center surrounded by pleasant, safe and easy-to-get-to communities.

Consulting economist Charles Lawton, Ph.D., can be contacted at:

[email protected]