After a year and a half working for ESPN in Connecticut, Brendan Gilbert was eager to return to his native Maine.

Armed with a degree in communications, he landed a job with Patra Co. in Brunswick, doing Web-based marketing.

And, to his surprise, he was able to net a lucrative state tax credit that he has used to help pay his student loan debt.

Gilbert has been telling his friends he considers the Opportunity Maine credit “a great benefit for people who want to stay in Maine.”

Gilbert and about 4,000 others have tapped the little-known program that awards tax credits to recent college grads who choose to work in Maine. Now, state officials hope a round of legislative tweaking and new promotional efforts will attract more recent college graduates – and in the process help build a more skilled workforce for Maine.

“What we really want is for them (college graduates) to come back and live and work in Maine,” said Tracy Coughlin of Maine Education Services, a nonprofit that helps students and families plan and pay for college. MES has been administering and marketing the Opportunity Maine program since it was created in 2008, although the Maine Development Foundation will take over the marketing effort this year.

When the program started, taxpayers had to be graduates of Maine colleges and working in Maine to qualify for tax credits, which can range up to $4,500 per year.

Over the years, the rules have been loosened and, for the 2016 tax year, it will be open to all post-2008 college graduates – not just those from Maine colleges and universities – who take jobs in Maine.

The new rules will also offer more incentives to Maine companies to pay some or all of their employees’ student loans, even for employees holding graduate degrees. A company making student loan payments for an employee can claim the payments as a tax break on its annual filing. This year, the Legislature lifted the cap on the amount employers can pay on their workers’ student loans and still qualify for the tax credit. The credit is over $4,000 for a bachelor’s degree or nearly $800 for an associate degree, per eligible employee.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sponsored a bill this year that included changes in the program, said he expects that provision will take off as more employers become aware of it.

“It’s a huge recruiting tool,” he said, and will allow Maine employers to compete with out-of-state companies offering higher salaries.

WORKERS IN SHORT SUPPLY

Economists are predicting that Maine will face a shortage of more than 100,000 workers by 2032 because of baby boomers retiring and the state’s low birth rate. Six out of every seven job openings in Maine over the next several years will be to replace existing workers leaving the labor force, which began shrinking in 2013, according to an analysis by the Maine Department of Labor.

“That’s what we hear from employers around the state: workforce, workforce,” said Yellow Light Breen, chief executive officer of the Maine Development Foundation. “It’s the number one challenge facing the state.”

Opportunity Maine is “a mostly unknown program,” he said, particularly the part that allows an employer to pay off a worker’s student loans and get a tax credit. Marketing it dovetails with other efforts that MDF is focused on to attract young, skilled workers to Maine, said Breen.

In testimony before the Taxation Committee, Rep. Mattie Daughtery, D-Brunswick, representing the Legislature’s Youth Caucus, argued for the expansion of the program to Mainers who got their college educations outside the state.

“Student loan debt in particular keeps many in very difficult financial situations just starting out with their lives, with a third of millennials nationwide still living with their parents,” she said. “Let’s encourage those students to come back to Maine to live, work and play, avoiding the so-called brain drain scenario. We need those young people to help make Maine a more prosperous state.”

THE VALUE OF A STEM DEGREE

The amount that taxpayers can claim under the Opportunity Maine program varies, based on their individual tax and loan situations. Gilbert said his credit ends up covering about two-thirds of his annual payments on a $10,000 student debt he accumulated while earning a bachelor’s degree from the New England School of Communications at Husson University. He said he’s stretching out his payments to take advantage of the credit, which can be claimed over 10 years.

The federal government allows taxpayers to claim a deduction on interest paid on their student loans, but Coughlin said she thinks only one other state – Kansas – offers a state credit like Maine’s.

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, nearly 4,000 taxpayers claimed a credit under the program. Credits are higher for the highly desirable tech worker with a STEM (science, technology, education or math) degree. The average amount was $1,832 for people with a STEM degree. For college grads without a STEM degree, the average credit was a little more than $1,000.

Coughlin said with Maine’s unemployment rate below 4 percent, it may seem odd to push a program to invite more workers to move here. But she noted that many employers say they are having a hard time finding skilled workers.

And with Maine’s aging workforce, many skilled workers are retiring, so she said the program is a good way to attract young skilled workers to replace them.

“We want to make it a strong, powerful tool” for improving the quality of the workforce, she said.

 

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