Forget about creating new jobs. Maine faces a replacement jobs crisis. According to Department of Labor projections for the next decade, for every net new job — every job that will add to our grand total of people employed — there will be more than five replacement jobs. Every year, before we can begin to think about growing our employment, we’re going to have to find five workers to replace those who retire or die. Over a total economy of approximately 675,000 employees, this amounts to more than 15,000 replacement jobs annually — roughly the equivalent of replacing every Hannaford employee every four months — clearly a challenge that must send chills down the spines of human resource managers across the state. Except, of course, those who know they will soon be retired.

While demographic imbalance is not unique to Maine, it is more acute here. In 2010, just over 43 percent of Maine’s employees were in the 45-64 age cohort, and approximately 39 percent were in the 25-44 age cohort. In a selection of states with whom Maine competes for jobs (and thus for younger workers), those percentages are reversed. Compared with Maine’s 39 percent in the 25-44 age cohort, Maryland has 43 percent, Oregon has 44 percent, North Carolina and Colorado have 45 percent and Texas has 46 percent. Compared with Maine’s 43 percent in the 45-64 age cohort, Maryland has 39 percent, Oregon has 40 percent, North Carolina has 39 percent, Colorado has 38 percent and Texas has 37 percent.

In two words, Maine’s current employment structure is top heavy. Over the next decade, Maine’s employers will have fewer candidates from whom to choose when seeking to replace senior workers. And since there are so many of those senior workers, their younger colleagues are less likely to have had the upper-level experience that would groom them for promotions. Given these demographic realities, Maine employers will face greater pressure either to find more capital-intensive ways to get work done or to cede growth to competitors and simply allow their businesses to wind down.

All in all, not an encouraging picture. The more I look at these figures, the more I am convinced that demographic imbalance is Maine’s most critical problem. These trends seem to indicate that we are on our way to becoming little more than a seasonal colony for the wealthy.

To avoid that future, I think we need to refocus our perceptions just slightly in two areas.

First, we need to stop thinking in terms of complete educational programs and start thinking in terms of specific human skills. We need to stop wringing our hands about the impossibility of “finding skilled workers” and start making a list of what precisely those skills are. At a recent forum, one employer stood up and said, “I want someone who will show up on time and show up every day.” “OK,” I thought, “responsibility is a skill.” We don’t have to send someone to college and burden him with an enormous debt to document that he is responsible. We just need to break down that vague bugaboo, “skills,” into a more clearly defined list of abilities and knowledge and attitudes. And then, we have to break down our educational system’s fixation on programs and degrees and move to more discreet packages of learning experiences that can be obtained in lots of ways and in lots of places, including online.

Second, we need to stop thinking of Maine as our labor market. A Pew Research Center survey recently found that one percent of adult Americans — approximately two million people — would, if given the choice of any state in the Union to live, choose Maine. A local real estate broker recently told me that he had a list of 30 people from all across the country ready to move to Maine and buy a house if they could find a job here. His contact list is part of our labor market. We just don’t know it and have no effective way of measuring it and getting it into the search routines for all those looking for “skilled” workers. That’s a lost opportunity.

Narrowing and sharpening our definition of skills, liberating the learning process from the confines of existing educational structures and broadening our search for capable candidates will go a long way toward making our economy demographically sustainable.

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

[email protected]