I have spent my career working on and studying Maine’s economy. Adam Cote is the only candidate for governor who has put forward a bold, smart, innovative approach to connect Maine workers to the skills they need to earn higher wages.

Things have been tough for several decades now in Maine. The wholesale dismissal of workers and erosion of wages for key industries and occupations has not only stripped the identity of entire communities but has undermined the dignity and self-worth of workers. The unrelenting forces of globalization and technology innovation have and will continue to transform our economy. To be sure, there are the seeds of a new economy such innovations in energy production and environmental sustainability that are showing promise as job creators.

From a public policy standpoint however, we have failed to fully grasp the depth and severity of the problem and its long-term impacts associated with wrenching economic transformation. Deep wounds have been inflicted on individuals, families and entire regions of our state. While there is no shortage of well-intentioned efforts to revive regional economies and rescue stranded workers, such efforts often fall short of the mark. Restoring the workforce with competitive skills, adequate wages and strong self-concept requires a more sustained focus accompanied by deep investments and new strategies.

The federal and state governments have in place a patchwork of job training programs largely underfunded in relation to the full scope of needs. Furthermore, existing job training programs have limiting eligibility criteria that prevent most workers from being able to access them. These funds are typically authorized under operating budgets and therefore must compete with other pressing needs. They come up short in the struggle for setting budget priorities. Such trends will continue and most likely, accelerate in years ahead. While high performing K-12 and post-secondary education systems are essential in building the foundation for workforce development, an even more comprehensive and innovative approach job training and retraining is needed. We must ensure the current workforce is able to keep up with escalating skill requirements and the dynamics of industry restructuring without suffering long-term unemployment and income loss. Large-scale human capital investment, driven by rapidly shifting market conditions is essential to sustain Maine’s economic growth.

Adam Cote’s proposal to establish the Maine Human Capital Investment Fund (MHCIF) to finance the ongoing job training of workers and industries at a scale commensurate with growing needs is bold proposal that deserves serious consideration. The MHCIF call for raising 75 to 100 million dollars for supporting job training requirements of workers and industries aligned with market conditions. Bonds could be issued under a general obligation (guaranteed) and/or moral obligation (non-guaranteed) basis. The fact that job training is an investment with returns in the form of increased wages and improved productivity occurring over years as opposed to an expense justifies a bonding approach.

The use of bonding to raise the resources we need to secure our future gives every Mainer the opportunity to become a stakeholder in the economy. Existing administrative systems such as the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) could be used to handle the fund’s administrative functions. States such as Iowa, Missouri and Kansas offer examples where bond financing has been used successfully to expand economic and workforce development investments.

Bonding for longer-term investments such as capital improvements and facilities construction are proven methods for meeting the infrastructure needs of the State of Maine. And, with below average long-term indebtedness, Maine is able to make additional investment without adding to risk. The MHCIF would simply follow existing procedures for the issuance of bonds and assign Fund administrative responsibilities to an organization such as FAME with a proven track record in the administration of business and student loans funds.

The MHCIF would be accessible to Maine businesses and workers alike granting low-interest loans and grants for purposes of workforce skills development. Businesses hiring workers in need of skills, either individually or as a consortium of firms, are eligible for a loan to fund skill training including on the job training, apprenticeships and classroom. Workers, both employed and unemployed, would be eligible for loan amounts based on the type of training proposed. Worker loan obligations could be assumed by employers upon hire and employment retention giving these employers a competitive edge in a tight labor market to attract workers. MHCIF would provide for more negotiated approach directly between employers and workers as well as give more flexibility in the use of training methods (work-based versus institutional centered).

Maine needs bold, innovative investments of real scale if we are to impact economic and demographic challenges. We need to elect leaders with vision and an agenda to transform our paths to the future. Adam has shown he has both.

John Dorrer is s former state of Maine labor economist. He lives in Brunswick.

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