Back in 2004, Pine Tree Zones were the jewels in the economic development plan rolled out by then-Gov. John Baldacci. The idea was to encourage investment in areas of the state that had lost manufacturing jobs by offering tax breaks and other inducements to investors willing to go there.

Under Baldacci’s successor, Paul LePage, the economic development plan was not limited to specific areas. LePage believed that if Maine lowered taxes across the board and put a lid on the cost of energy and labor, out-of-state capital would flow in, boosting growth.

The economic development plan rolled out last week by Gov. Mills takes a very different approach, one that is directly responsive to our needs. For the first time in recent history, the state’s focus would be on attracting people, not investment, adding skills and talent to a workforce that is shrinking every year. The plan sets a goal of increasing annual wages and attracting 75,000 working-age people from other states and around the world over the next decade, filling the gap left as 65,000 older Mainers leave the workforce.

The Mills administration is betting that the people will want to come here if they think they can make a living, and a strong workforce will be what attracts investment. We think that’s the right bet, and we agree that it will take more than hanging up a welcome sign to make it happen.

A major focus of the Mills plan is boosting wages. Over the last two decades, Maine’s average earnings has fallen from 83 percent of the national average to 78 percent. This decline has not made the state more attractive to outside investors looking for a cheap date, but it has made it harder for people to choose to live here.

According to the plan’s authors, the way to change that is by investing in the workforce, funding education from pre-K to post-secondary, as well as helping working people upgrade their skills.

There are 185,000 Mainers who have some college, but no degree, who could put themselves in a position for higher earnings if they could get access to the right program. The state’s community college system is serving that need for thousands of Mainers, but its most sought-after programs too often have to turn potential students away. Helping more workers acquire the skills and credentials would allow them to command more in the job market.

The plan also calls for increased investment in research aimed at bringing value-added products to market. If the technology is given the right nudge, fiber from Maine’s forests could be used to build in-demand construction materials just as easily as it was turned into paper in the past.

Better jobs and higher wages are key to bringing in the talent “from away” that is essential to Maine’s economic growth. This is not a criticism of the people who live here now – it’s just basic math. The baby boom generation – people born between 1946 and 1964 – is the biggest cohort in the state, making up 28 percent of Maine’s population in 2017. In 2029, the youngest among them will have their 65th birthday. That doesn’t mean that they will all be retired, but it should sound the alarm bell for policymakers.

What would it take to attract newcomers to move here?

Some of it will be marketing, an area where the state could partner with private industry to promote Maine’s quality of life in the same way we currently sell tourism.

Some will be investing in broadband and other infrastructure, making sure that people who have the opportunity to move their work here will be able to access the necessary networks.

And it will take a commitment to attracting immigrants, especially the 2 million college-educated people already in other parts of the country, stuck in low-wage jobs because their credentials and experience are not recognized, a phenomenon called “brain waste.”

According to the report: “Above all, Maine must be known by new Americans across the United States as the most effective state to find a meaningful job that matches their career aspirations with their prior skills.”

This economic development plan is not a piece of legislation, and it will take many bills and appropriations to bring it into fulfillment. But it provides the right framework for the kind of changes we need to make if we are going to fight our demographic trends.

 

 

 


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