As national politicians argue about building a wall to keep immigrants out, labor statistics make the case for Mainers building bridges to bring more people in.

Maine is in the top 10 when you rank the states by lowest unemployment rate. But it is also at the bottom in job growth, only one of nine states in America that hasn’t caught up to where it was before the Great Recession.

How could both be true? Because a decline in the number of workers – not a rise in the number of jobs – is the reason for our falling unemployment rate.

This troubling trend will affect nearly every aspect of Maine life. As baby boomers move into retirement, and young people leave the state for better economic opportunities, the shrinking workforce is a brake on growth and a check on investment. Projects will be shelved if there is no one to do the work, companies won’t expand, developers will look elsewhere.

And the state’s population will just get older and sicker, with fewer people left to help.

Natural population growth won’t save us. In 2012, the number of Maine residents between the ages of 45 and 64 totaled roughly 411,000. Most members of that group are expected to exit the labor force by 2032. There were 302,000 state residents under age 20 in 2012. If none of them left the state, there would still be a shortfall of up to 109,000 workers.

Some of those jobs will be filled by people from other states, who are attracted by Maine’s natural beauty and access to the sea and woods. As access to high-speed Internet reaches more remote areas, there will be opportunities for people who want to relocate their business or work remotely.

But Maine will never have the workforce it needs until it starts to look more like the rest of the country. Today, nearly 14 percent of the nation’s population is foreign born, compared to 5 percent in 1965. In Maine, only 3.5 percent of the population was born in another country.

If Maine’s foreign-born population only met the nation’s 1965 average, there would be nearly 20,000 more people here who would be ready to work and start businesses.

Growing the workforce is only part of the equation. Making sure that workers have the right skills and giving businesses the conditions they need to get started and grow should also be part of a long-term plan.

But allowing jobs to disappear and the workforce to shrink is a recipe for decline, not prosperity. Maine will have to learn to open its arms to outsiders or face the consequences.


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