If employers today think they have trouble filling positions, they are not going to like where this is headed.

There will be more deaths than births in Maine this year, a condition that has existed for several years and is expected to persist for the foreseeable future. As baby boomers age out of the workforce, Maine will have trouble replacing them.

That means Maine needs every available worker in the workforce, and then some. As Labor Commissioner John Butera told the Portland Press Herald last week, “It’s all hands on deck.”


Gov. LePage has focused most intensely on teens, pushing for looser child labor laws so that Mainers as young as 14 and 15 can work more. Butera said last week that by targeting young teens, Maine could add at least 20,000 workers.

Many teens would benefit from a summer job, but there’s reason to believe this strategy won’t work as planned. And the answers to our workforce problems lie in attracting more people from outside the state, including immigrants.

But if we’re talking about getting more native Mainers in the workforce, there’s another young population we should be looking at.

The number of teens in the workforce has been dropping for years, both in Maine and nationwide. In July of last year, 43 percent of American teenagers were looking for a job, down from 53 percent in July 2007. Compare that with 1989, when 70 percent of teens were in the workforce.

There are a few factors at play, researchers say.

Among others, there are more seniors and immigrants working in the low-skill, entry-level jobs that used to go to teens, and high schools are more frequently beginning the school year before Labor Day, shortening the summer work season.

But the single biggest factor is the changing face of college preparation. Teens who once would have been employed all summer are now taking extra courses, volunteering their time or working unpaid internships in order to round out their college applications.

So while fewer teens may be working, the decrease is not fueled by laziness, and it’s not necessarily hurting the economy. The teens who are taking classes and volunteering will go off to college, and come back ready for the workforce.


Instead, we should be looking at the 14,000 or so Mainers ages 16-24 who are not in school or working, 11,000 of whom are ages 20-24 – 14 percent of that population. Once they would have been able to get a good job at a mill; now they struggle to find work, and slowly become unmoored from the community. These so-called disconnected youth become increasingly cut off from the world as the rest of us know it, setting themselves up for a life of poverty, frustration – and contact with social services.

There are about 4.9 million disconnected youth nationwide, and they cost the country $93 billion a year in lost revenue and welfare spending. Once an issue largely relegated to cities, this problem has become increasingly apparent in rural areas since the Great Recession, as those areas failed to recover.

There is a clock running on this population; if they do not reconnect to a path toward employment before too long, they likely won’t ever, and will live a life of spotty employment with no hope of advancement.

These young Mainers face a number of barriers to school and employment, but they can be overcome with investments in apprenticeships and job training. We cannot afford to undercut our schools or make health care less accessible, both of which disproportionately affect that population.

The story of disconnected youth is one of lost potential. We should do what we can to put these kids on the right path before it’s too late.

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