AUGUSTA — The recent report by the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research (“Report projects near-zero net job growth in Maine,”Aug. 6) regarding sluggish projected job growth in our state is sobering. Among other things, the report forecasts that by 2026, Maine will lose more than 30,000 workers in the 45-to-54 age range, with more of us working into what previously had been considered retirement years.

The Maine economy is projected to produce net job growth of fewer than 100 jobs from 2016 to 2026. This is indeed a call to action for concerned citizens and policymakers alike; it is also an opportunity for us to take stock of some of our existing best practices and consider enhancing them as we prepare to welcome a new administration and Legislature.

It is no secret that Maine’s aging population, low birth rate and low in-migration rates present great challenges in terms of our future workforce and economy. Yet we also know that Maine has a great deal to offer as a desirable place to live and work: incredibly hard workers, tremendous natural resources, an excellent quality of life, and exciting new and growing industries. We need not settle and accept the report’s negative trends as inevitable; rather, we need to address these challenges head-on and convert them into meaningful action, thereby shaping a future of our choosing.

Many of us are already thinking about these trends and taking action in our own spheres. Numerous Maine organizations are doing exciting things, and no one of them has all the answers. But each has something to offer in terms of potential solutions, and they could use our support.

I am pleased to be a founding member of MaineSpark, a diverse coalition of statewide business and education leaders committed to working together to ensure that Maine’s workforce is productive and competitive. MaineSpark organizations – schools and universities, nonprofits and foundations, government agencies and businesses – are connecting people with the education, training, jobs, programs and resources needed to thrive in Maine’s robust and changing economy. We all share a common goal: that by 2025, 60 percent of Mainers will hold education and workforce credentials that position them for success. Currently, only 42 percent of Mainers hold such credentials. This means we have a lot to do just to create a stable and capable workforce.

Before we reinvent the wheel by creating new and expensive programs with uncertain efficacies, however, we could better support existing programs with proven results. The Finance Authority of Maine administers a variety of student loan, loan repayment and grant programs to help Maine students and families afford higher education. We also run the state’s 529 college savings plan, NextGen, and help to market a tax credit that helps student’s repay their debt in return for living and working in Maine. These programs need more funding, however, to keep pace with growing higher education costs and student debt. They also can be used as tools to target workforce needs and attract new workers to the state.

On the business side, our commercial loan insurance program boasts an impressive return on investment. Over the past 10 years alone, FAME has partnered with local Maine lending institutions to provide over $500 million in insurance to leverage over $1 billion in lender loans. This in turn helped to create and retain nearly 100,000 Maine jobs. Impressive, indeed, but think what we could do for economic development if funding were increased!

There is much good work going on in our state, but there remains much more to do. We need to develop meaningful strategies of retaining our youth and welcoming new businesses and Mainers to our workforce. We should better market our strengths to people and businesses outside the state in order to attract them to relocate here. We also need to help educate more Mainers and help adult learners complete their credentials in order to advance in the economy.

Maine’s economy and people have faced many challenges over the years. We are resilient, innovative and optimistic by nature.

We benefit most when we successfully harness each other’s strengths and experiences. We should take positive, concrete action in the face of the above challenges and make strategic investments for our future’s sake.

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