Oakland Town Manager Gary Bowman worries about how he’s going to replace his experienced staff members and leaders, who are nearly all within retirement age.

The average age at the Town Office is 62, he said, and five people are within a few years of retirement age.

“When this happens, it’s going to happen very quickly,” he said. “They call it a silver tsunami.”

It’s a concern shared at town and city halls throughout Maine, coming as the state is expected to face a workforce shortage because of its demographics across all industries. As the oldest state in the nation, Maine has more than 400,000 residents who are expected to leave the workforce by 2023, according to a 2012 report from the Maine Department of Labor. At the same time, only about 300,000 residents will be entering the workforce, leaving at least a 100,000-person gap if all young Mainers choose to stay in their home state.

Municipalities are not immune to this trend, which is part of why it’s becoming more difficult to find people for jobs ranging from police officer to code enforcement officer to assessor.

Bowman is planning to look into internships to try to fill voids and recruit younger workers.

“We need to glamorize (the jobs) somehow,” he said. “Some people look at government as far as being evil, and we’re not. Your local government is the purest form of government. We’re in touch with people.”

That’s a message the Maine Municipal Association is hoping to get out as it spearheads a project to promote municipal jobs and provide training as many employees around the state approach retirement age and towns face potential staffing crises.

“We’ve been hearing from our member cities and towns for over a year about the difficulty they are having filling municipal positions,” Stephen Gove, executive director of MMA, said in an emailed statement. “Municipalities face the same demographic-driven workforce issues other sectors in the state are experiencing – fewer applicants for open jobs and fewer candidates with the skills and certifications necessary for many municipal positions.”

The state’s workforce, as of 2012, totaled about 700,000 people, which means that loss could be significant. Population has also stayed relatively flat since at least 2010.

The municipal association plans to provide tools to Maine towns and cities, Gove said, so that they can attract younger workers and educate residents about the available opportunities. There are 490 municipalities in Maine, 485 of which are members of the association.

“We think there’s just a general lack of awareness,” said Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for the MMA. While the right person could work his or her way up in a municipality and get a “solid job,” many people don’t think of the local town office as a place to look for a career, Conrad said.

PUBLIC SERVICE

When the municipal association saw that the Maine Development Foundation, a private membership organization that focuses on creating long-term economic growth and a productive workforce in the state, was working on similar issues, it decided to partner with the organization, Conrad said.

While working with the foundation, the association is looking at the larger statewide issues behind the workforce shortages and collecting information.

It’s also in the process of creating a grant fund for summer internships to help member municipalities hire students to learn about town business. The association is working with the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine in Orono, where towns will submit their applications to be matched with an intern. The association will pick two to four members to provide partial funding for the internship, Conrad said.

Some have taken it upon themselves to find solutions. In Cumberland County, a regional assessing program helps cut overhead costs for assessing for the four towns of Casco, Falmouth, Yarmouth and Gorham.

The program was created not to address a shortage, but to save the towns money, director Renee Lachapelle said.

“We felt it was one of the areas in municipal government that could be consolidated,” she said.

Her staff of certified Maine assessors operates out of one office and provides some part-time office hours in each town every week. While the program got off to a rough start due to sudden staffing issues, it has since been working smoothly, Lachapelle said. Another town is looking to join now.

Staffing the regional program is less difficult, she said, because while they don’t always get applicants with extensive experience, they can count on in-house experienced staff to train them.

While the aging demographics of Maine are a major part of why staffing has become a primary concern for many towns, there are other reasons why it’s hard to recruit new people.

Some aren’t interested due to the sigma often attached to government, Conrad said.

“It’s sort of a sport to pick on people who work in public service,” he said, which can make people think twice about taking on a title.

Ruth Birtz, president of the Maine Association of Assessing Officers and the assessor for the town of Lincoln, said her position is especially targeted for that reason.

Often, tax assessors are seen as responsible for tax increases, when they really just value the properties and keep track of exemptions.

“If you’re not in a what I refer to as a ‘feel good’ department” like the library or public works, Birtz said, “you tend to get a lot of criticism and lack of support.”

But many say that these jobs can be fulfilling ways to serve the community.

Larry Mead, president of Maine Town, City and County Management Association and town manager of Old Orchard Beach, has been drawn to the idea of public service since he was young. He grew up in the time when national leaders were saying things like President John F. Kennedy did: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

“It was a vocation that I thought I was going to do from the time I was in high school,” Mead said. For the past 19 years, he’s served as town manager or assistant city manager for various communities in southern Maine.

Aaron Chrostowsky, the town manager of Wayne in Kennebec County, started working in municipal government when he was 29.

“The thing that attracted me about working in local government was that I can do the greatest good for my residents and the people that I serve at the local level,” he said. “I just felt that I would have the greatest impact in my role as a public administrator.”

While he said it’s a difficult field to work in and often a thankless job, it can also be very rewarding.

For example, on Friday the town received a grant that will pay for half the cost of a new generator for the Ladd Recreation Center. Chrostowsky had to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get a waiver for the grant.

Now, when there is another widespread power outage, the town will be able to open the building as a warming center.

WAGE BARRIER

One barrier to working in municipal government can be pay.

In Gardiner, for instance, the City Council has been searching for a city manager since March. While Anne Davis, the interim city manager, was not involved in the first search for candidates, she suspects that pay had something to do with it.

Gardiner is a service center like Augusta or Lewiston, so it’s in competition with larger cities with more funds.

“Gardiner will need to evaluate how much it will need to pay to have a professional manager,” Davis said. The previous city manager, Scott Morelli, was making $90,000 when he left. While that may sound like a high salary for central Maine, Davis said the position is equivalent to that of a private sector CEO.

Salaries in other areas tend to be higher, like $116,958 in Augusta, $124,956 in Lewiston, and $120,000 in Saco, according to 2016 research from the Portland Press Herald.

The Maine Municipal Association does keep a salary survey, but it is not accessible to nonmembers.

Municipalities might be forced to raise wages, Mead said.

Governments “will be faced with the reality on the ground that they’re having difficulty filling positions because of shortage of labor and competition for qualified individuals,” he said. “There’s been a long period since the recession in 2008, where wages grew very, very slowly, including on the municipal side. And that was fine for some time.”

Now, simple economics say that as supply goes down and demand goes up, wages will have to rise.

However, “life isn’t that simplistic,” said Jim Breece, an associate professor in the School of Economics at the University of Maine in Orono.

People also want to feel appreciated in the workforce, which can be done without a large wage increase. The change also doesn’t have to affect taxpayers.

Alternatives, like regionalization of some services, could lessen the load. Other expenses could be cut to make up for the increased spending, although that could affect the services a town provides. “I wouldn’t immediately say it would lead to a drastic (tax) rate increase, but it could,” Breece said. “I do say action is needed.”

BEING PROACTIVE

While municipal jobs may not pay as much as private sector jobs, they come with good health and retirement benefits, Davis said, and tend to be more stable than private sector jobs. But she fears that younger generations will have less loyalty for their employers, which could lead to more attrition.

As people have left municipal positions in Gardiner, the city has cut back to “streamline,” sometimes too much, she said. For instance, a part-time person was hired to replace a full-time economic development person.

As the economy rebounds, “you have to worry if you’re losing opportunities” by not devoting more resources to a position like that, she said.

Meanwhile, the Gardiner Public Library is left without a director as Davis continues to fill in while the City Council continues to search.

“My fear is that … (the library is) getting shortchanged by having me be city manager,” she said.

Mead said he thinks educating middle-schoolers and high-schoolers about what opportunities are in their backyards is an important first step for towns.

“I think this is a good time to do this and we’re all pedaling fast to catch up to what the reality is,” he said. “We need to figure out a way to keep young people in the state.”

Young people tend to be idealistic and interested in lifting their communities, he said, which they can do in a municipal job.

Birtz’s association is trying to get the word out, through events and educational literature, as well as social media and by reaching out to schools.

They need to be “proactive rather than reactive,” she said. “I think it’s a very necessary step because when I first became an assessor I didn’t even know that this job existed.”

Bowman, the Oakland manager, foresees the upcoming “silver tsunami” as something that could hurt his town – and its taxpayers.

To combat the problem, some staff members are training under those who have expressed interest in retiring in the near future. The town’s financial officer, who also does human resources work, is working with another staff member on training. The code enforcement officer has hired an assistant. The town clerk is training the deputy town clerk.

“These people with all this experience, they’ve been here 40 or 50 years. They take all that with them,” Bowman said. “There’s a reason for Oakland’s (tax) rate being as low as it has been. It’s because of this experience.”