AUGUSTA — For decades, we’ve heard politicians promising to attract businesses and jobs to the state to help grow the economy. While supporting small businesses and job creation is important, what Maine’s economy needs right now is people. Maine’s economic outlook has changed dramatically since the Great Recession, and the state suffers not from a lack of jobs but from a lack of people. Between our aging population, baby boomer retirements and widespread workforce shortages, attracting and retaining workers ought to be our No. 1 priority.

In the Lewiston/Auburn area alone, there are roughly 1,400 open jobs advertised on JobsinME.com. Seven hundred of these jobs are in health care, almost 100 are in education, 100 are in the skilled trades, 100 are in IT and 100 are in manufacturing. More than two-thirds pay more than $15 an hour.

It’s time to stop chasing out-of-state businesses and start chasing workers. We have to start thinking about ways to incentivize young workers to move to Maine, establish residence and work and raise their families here. Direct student debt relief could be a powerful way to do just that.

The explosive growth of student debt – fueled by the demands of today’s economy for nearly all workers to have post-high school credentials – has reached a crisis point. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans now owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loans. In Maine, the average student-loan debtor owes $30,000. This crisis affects students and graduates of all ages, across a wide range of programs, from community college to a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree. It’s holding back an entire generation by making it harder to buy a home, start a family and save for retirement.

Mainers tend to be smart and responsible when it comes to their finances. They pay their bills on time, stick to a budget and try to live within their means. But the student debt crisis has spiraled out of control. Predatory lenders have taken advantage of families and workers of all ages who are just trying to acquire the skills they need to move forward with their work or rise in their field.

We have to think in big and bold ways on how to navigate these workforce and financial headwinds.

Last year, I introduced a bond that would provide tens of millions of dollars to forgive eligible Mainers’ student debt. The catch is that whether they were born here or from away, recipients must agree to work and live in our state for at least five years. By creating a significant student loan forgiveness benefit – say, 50 cents on the dollar, up to a reasonable limit – Maine could attract and retain more qualified workers. It could really set Maine apart among the 49 other states as a place where you can find good work and pay off your student loans.

It would also help Maine fill significant gaps in our workforce. In health care, for example, Maine has a shortage today of about 600 nurses. This number is expected to grow to 3,000 by 2025. If we are to fill these positions, we need to make sure the next generation of Mainers can afford to get necessary skills and training, without drowning in debt after graduation or avoiding higher education altogether because of prohibitive costs.

While my legislation fell a handful of votes short of passage, it received a lot of attention and bipartisan support from Mainers all across the state, which is why I am prepared to introduce similar legislation next session. I know that Maine people are our economy’s greatest asset, whether they are Mainers by birth or by choice. The idea is that if you commit to Maine, we will commit to you and our economy will be better for it.

Maine’s workforce shortages are dire but they also represent an opportunity to rethink our statewide economic strategy. Maine has the opportunity to set our state apart from the rest of the country in a way that solves both our workforce shortages and the growing student debt crisis. It’s time to think big and bold about the future of our state.


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