June 30, 2013

Our View: Maine should not accept low-skill, low-wage future

The 'skills gap' may be more complicated than we've been told, but there's still a problem.

For a stark picture of Maine's economic future, take a look at the Department of Labor's 10-year projections for the Maine workforce.

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Government, the business community and the members of the future workforce all have a part to play in ensuring that the jobs that come to Maine are high-skill, high-wage positions.

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Analyzing 600 job categories in the state, researchers found that most new jobs in the next decade will be low-wage, low-skill positions that won't require even a high school diploma.

The top jobs, in raw numbers, will be cashiers, maids, home health aides, janitors and warehouse workers, earning $12 an hour or less.

A much smaller number of high-wage, high-skill jobs in technical fields are expected to be created, but in nowhere near the numbers that have been touted by the business and political leaders who argue that Maine is suffering from a "skills gap."

It's not a pretty picture, but it doesn't have to be our future. The job projections tell us what kind of economy we would have if nothing changes. They do not tell us what kind of economy we can build by acting now.

As with many complex issues that get boiled down to slogans and factoids, there are a lot more facets to the "skills gap" than are usually discussed.

When proponents make claims that high-tech jobs are going begging because there is a lack of qualified workers, they are not telling the whole story. There are 50,000 unemployed Mainers, and even if they all became electrical engineers tomorrow, they would not find work. Calling it a "skills gap" suggests that it's the workers' fault they don't have jobs and discredits the workforce development effort.

But that doesn't mean that we should give up and accept the low-wage future the DOL numbers predict.

A number of levers need to be pulled to move the state forward. It will require action by the business community, government and the members of the future workforce.

The essential ingredient is increasing the demand for labor. In established industries, that is expected to happen as the baby boom generation moves toward retirement.

In other industries, progress will hinge on whether businesses grow, and it's the role of government to give those businesses what they need to thrive, which will include an adequate supply of qualified workers.

Finding people who can fill those jobs is not just a matter of worker training.

According to a survey of employers conducted by the Maine Sunday Telegram, employers are interested in well-educated employees with good work habits who can be trained. That means making sure that schools provide basic math, science, language and problem-solving skills so that students have the foundation to acquire job-specific skills later.

And to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to participate, the government has a role in making sure that families have the support they need to raise children who are ready to learn. That calls for continued support for child health care as well as early education programs that prepare children for school.

We don't have to have the economy the DOL predicts, but we can't expect it to change without action. These job projections should be a call to action.

 

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