When my kids were growing up in the small town of Industry just outside Farmington, their highest-status peers were those whose fathers had the biggest dump trucks, tractors and skidders. Career aspirations in that world were shaped, in large part, by the work that was seen and admired on a daily basis.

Today, many of those “toys” are rusting in driveways or have long ago been repossessed.  And with the disappearance of these obvious examples of how to earn a living in the world, our young people, particularly those in our rural areas, have also lost many of the most obvious examples for career aspirations. 

One of the most important economic challenges is replacing these models with others more appropriate to the employment prospects of the future.

Who has the big toys today, and what are they doing with them?

As I suggested last week in my review of the Milken Prosperous Cities report, one place to look is Greater Boston. What sectors have a greater share of total private-sector earnings in the Boston Metro area than in the Portland Metro area?  And do these sectors offer any examples of careers to which we might profitably aspire?

The extreme ends of this relative economic concentration are not surprising, but do help to illustrate the point.

Greater Boston has nearly seven times Portland’s concentration in air transportation – a natural consequence of Logan Airport – and Greater Portland has a nearly seven-fold greater concentration in wood products manufacturing – a natural consequence of our abundant forest resources.
But beyond these obvious extremes, there are some useful examples of sectors to which Maine might usefully aspire.

Boston has nearly five times Portland’s concentration in publishing and nearly four times its concentration in rail transportation. While we may not convince a major publisher to relocate to Maine or achieve the volume of traffic at North Station, our efforts to build a new media presence and to expand our rail infrastructure need not be seen as hopeless shots in the dark.

If they’re growing immediately to our south, there’s not reason they couldn’t grow here as well.
Similarly, Greater Boston has higher concentrations in computer and electronic product manufacturing, educational, professional, technical and technical services, information, telecommunications and museums, performing arts and spectator sports.

Again, we don’t need to replace Harvard and MIT or Mass General or Fenway Park. We need, rather, to see these world-class examples of regional economic engines as models to which we can, at our own level, aspire.

Many of the customers patronizing Boston’s centers of transportation, education, medicine and entertainment come from Maine. And, when we need them, we’re undoubtedly glad they’re there.
But we sell ourselves short if we think we have to go to Boston to get those services. The Sea Dogs, the Red Claws, our cruise liners and many of our restaurants have proven that we can offer a range of high- quality services well suited to our market size.

We need to aspire to multiply those examples in education, professional and technical services and high-tech manufacturing.

There are successful models to follow. We just need to know where to look and to have confidence that, in our own way, we can do it as well as they do in the big city.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at: [email protected]