The most significant obstacle to expanding Maine’s economic prosperity is the slowing growth – and in some areas, the shrinking – of our labor force. According to the Maine Department of Labor’s most recent forecast, more than 88 percent of the job openings over the next 10 years will be to fill expected vacancies. If we can’t fill the jobs that already exist, forget growth and forget new jobs. Businesses will close and the economy will contract.

There are three ways to answer this challenge: to convince current workers to delay retirement and stay on; to coax more “discouraged” workers – those who have given up even looking for a job – back into the labor force; and to attract more workers to come to Maine from other places.

Each of these options will require new “talent attraction” strategies from employers looking for workers, and new “talent development” strategies from the education and training institutions charged with providing our youth – and, increasingly, those of all ages – clear pathways to job opportunities, and from the economic development officials charged with attracting new workers and new businesses to Maine.

To be effective, each of these strategies must be targeted and specific. It is not enough to say that the state should fund retraining programs for laid-off workers. We must design specific programs for specific would-be workers and specific would-be employers. Programs for delaying retirement, for instance, must focus on in-house workplace culture, flexible work hours, benefit arrangements and job definitions. Programs for re-engaging discouraged workers, in contrast, must focus on realistic job possibilities – not everyone can or wants to become a coder or computer technician – and creating financially rewarding small steps to demonstrable skill acquisition and job placement.

In thinking about how to explore these “career pathways” in specific cases, it is useful to examine a list of the occupations that have seen above-average growth since the end of the Great Recession. (The figures that follow come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Survey.)

It is particularly interesting to see that the occupational group at the top of this list for Maine is personal care and service occupations. This is a polyglot category that includes personal care aides, child care workers, hairdressers, fitness trainers and recreation workers, gaming workers, amusement attendants and funeral service workers, among others. Between 2010 and 2016, this occupational grouping experienced a growth rate of 56 percent, representing the addition of nearly 9,000 jobs. By comparison, growth for all occupations in Maine over this period was only 3.3 percent, representing an increase of just under 19,000 jobs.

The second-fastest-growing occupational group over this 2010 to 2016 period of economic recovery was computer and mathematical occupations. This group experienced job growth of just over 28 percent, representing an addition of about 2,600 jobs.

While these two groups experienced substantial job growth, the pay they earned was quite different. The average annual pay in the personal care and service group in 2016 was $24,600, while in the computer and math group it was $72,900. Compare these figures with an all-occupation average annual pay of $44,200.

A similar difference was evident in pay growth. Between 2010 and 2016, average annual pay in the personal care and service group increased 4 percent; in the computer and math group, it rose 13 percent. Both figures compared to an all-occupation average pay increase of 12 percent.

It is fascinating, on closer examination, to see that this same pattern of bifurcation plays out in all 12 of the occupational groups that saw above-average job growth over the period. Seven groups displayed the high job growth, low pay and the below-average growth in pay exhibited by the personal care and service group. And five groups saw the same high job growth, high pay and high rate of growth in pay exhibited by the computer and math group.

Group 1 – the high-job-growth, low-pay group – included art, design, entertainment, sports and media, food prep and serving, installation, maintenance and repair, protective service, building and grounds maintenance, and production occupations. This group as a whole experienced an average job growth of 14 percent, an average pay in 2016 of $33,900 and an average growth in pay over the six-year period of 8.5 percent.

Group 2 – the high-job-growth, high-pay group – included business, financial, management, engineering and health care practitioners. This group as a whole experienced an average job growth of 13 percent, an average pay in 2016 of $76,300 and an average growth in pay over the six-year period of 13.1 percent.

None of this analysis addresses the 10 occupational groups that saw below-average and negative job growth over the period, but it does clearly illustrate that all jobs are not equal and thus underlines the need for labor market policies designed to meet the specific challenges of both the skill needs of particular occupational groups and the work and pay expectations of the various groups who do or might seek employment in Maine.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]