Many elections ago – in the days before campaign managers had to worry about their candidates finding the phones they thought they had hidden and tweeting at 3 a.m. – there was a harsh reminder intended to keep the Big Guy (or Girl) on message: “It’s the economy, stupid!” In Maine today, that terse instruction could be rephrased as “It’s not about jobs, stupid; it’s about workers!”

Consider the following stark contrast taken from our recent economic history. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of Maine residents holding a job increased by 22,000. Over the same period, the size of Maine’s labor force increased by only 2,000. And even that tiny increase was made possible only because an additional 17,000 workers (and would-be workers) age 65 and over offset the loss of 15,000 workers in the 16-to-64 age cohort.

In other words, the unemployed, immigrants from outside the state and older workers are what have kept the Maine economy afloat during the “recovery” of the last six years.

Now, look forward 10 years. Maine’s civilian labor force – the population age 16 and older that is neither in school full-time nor in the military and is either working or looking for work – will be at 690,000 in 2024, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics projections.

Assuming a 4 percent unemployment rate, that leaves us with a total of 662,000 people in Maine with jobs eight years from now. That amounts to a whopping 6,000 more jobs than the 2014 total – hardly a booming future and certainly not enough to keep even a fraction of our best and brightest here in Maine.

From the textile mills of the 1830s and ’40s to the electronic equipment assembly plants and call centers of the 1970s and ’80s, Maine’s long history of industrial development has been built on an ample and readily available supply of capable and dedicated workers. Hard as it may be to accept, however, that era is over.


The fall of the Iron and Bamboo curtains and the digitization of information have spread manufacturing all over the globe, and changing reproductive choices have diminished our birth rate to the point that the number of deaths in Maine has exceeded the number of births over the last several years.

And you may ask, “But doesn’t that make job creation all the more important?”

Yes, of course. But in “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” debate, it is increasingly clear in economic development that the egg of the worker comes before the chicken of the job. From the Silicon Valley in California and the Research Triangle in North Carolina to the newer examples of Google in New York City and General Electric in Boston, it is clear that the jobs that demand high levels of skill and pay high wages are increasingly located where the workers able and willing to fill them are located.

If Maine is to prosper in this new economy, its best policy option is to focus on the egg, on the labor force, on the supply of highly skilled, highly motivated, highly collaborative people who want not just “a job” but an engaging challenge.

And this dual reality – the critical importance of talent acquisition to employers, and the critical importance of challenging engagement to the worker – is where the opening for economic development policy occurs. Maine’s educational institutions and its employers must join in new collaborative ways to engage students in the joys and sorrows of engaging in a challenge and thus in the learning that is its inevitable result.

Forget about teaching to the test. Forget about the dysfunctional counsel that “everyone should go to college.” Forget about pouring more money into the existing system. It will be squandered like so many 4-by-8 sheets of plywood tacked over a picture window facing a gale-force hurricane.

Concerned Maine citizens must come to believe that the reality of only 6,000 new jobs over a decade for a population of more than 1.3 million is a looming emergency, one that calls for not more of the same but for extraordinary measures.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

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