All month, I’ve dedicated this column to looking at the future as we take our first steps into the new decade. It’s been some of my favorite, and perhaps most important, work I’ve done in this space. It’s essential we expand our vision past just 2020. We can’t look at only what’s facing us in the next three months, three weeks or three days. We need to look at the decade as a whole to what life will be like in 2030. There are certain paths we are headed down as a society and if we don’t like where the path is heading, then we need to begin to change course now before it’s too late.

Part one looked at the aging workforce, leadership voids and the need to train tomorrow’s leaders immediately. Part two looked at unique customer service, technological effects on retail and growing dental care issues. Part three discussed retirement living, the emergence of multi-generational homes, escapism and how technology has both connected us and made us yearn for more meaningful connections. Part four handled the difficult issues of succession planning for businesses, and how to reallocate existing taxes to help rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. If you would like copies of any of these stories, please look back in the Times Record archives or contact the chamber of commerce.

This is the final part of the series and there are a number of issues left to address. Here are several issues that also deserve our consideration as we head into this new decade.

Affordable Housing
This section originally had 600 words about the average home price is, what the average rental price is in the area and how much someone needs to make to afford them. The key issue for affordable housing is this: how can you fill jobs that pay $15 per hour if you don’t have enough housing in your area for an employee that makes $15 per hour? The issue is more complex than that, but if our housing is supposed to be 30% of our monthly budget, how can people get ahead if they are spending 40, 50 or 60% of their monthly budget on housing alone? There’s no easy answer to affordable housing. It requires a deep dive with landlords, realtors and housing advocates to find ways to close that gap.

A popular solution for housing and other issues is to mandate increased wages. However increased wages result in higher operating costs for businesses, meaning an increase is needed in income to counterbalance it. If a business has more operating expense then they will need to increase the cost of their product to the consumer, reduce their quality of product to something cheaper or perhaps they will cut hours or employees. To expect a business owner to raise wages and not change any other part of their business model is unsustainable- they need to make a profit to stay in business. Businesses need profit margins otherwise if they have a down year the business will need to close. Increased wages forces owners to look at efficiencies such as additional automation to keep a profit margin. Yet, higher wages would undoubtedly help those who remained employed and maintain their hours. What’s the answer? Hard to tell at this point, but anyone expecting mandated higher wages to lead to no business model adjustments is fooling themselves. The business owners will need to adapt how they do business.

Job Training
Some businesses have done great work on their own partnering with educators to address their employment needs: General Dynamics, Mid Coast-Parkview Health and Maine Energy Marketers Association (MEMA) are some great examples. We need fundamental change in the next decade though, to connect all of the business community to our education system. We need to recruit students for our industries of need and support them in getting the training needed to excel. We need to promote these opportunities in a systematic way to ensure we have the homegrown talent we need to match with the new Mainers we are attracting from elsewhere. This will be a full community effort and the chamber plans to play an active role in this.

What solutions will we have in the next decade to encourage support for childcare costs? Will we see an emergence of on-site childcare at businesses? Off-site childcare facilities supported by a dozen or so employers and only their employee’s children are eligible for the child care? State funded childcare? Cooperative parenting plans where 5-6 families send their kids to each others’ home one day per week? No answers are clear but many young families are spending $200-$700 per child per month and those costs are not sustainable. Absolutely no fault to the child care providers here, as they are highly regulated and have many more overhead costs than most realize including a need for employees. What will we do as a state to try and rein in these costs to make childcare more affordable and could a solution to this problem actually help in recruiting young families to Maine?

Lack of Diversity
We need more people to move to Maine and to help with that we need to have more structural solutions in place to welcome diverse people. Everyone likes to live in places that have the social, and cultural activities they enjoy doing. We need to look at what we are offering and encourage our new Mainers to open the businesses and start the activities that they want in the community rather than only offering what we always have that may not meet their needs. Let’s brainstorm how we can be open and welcoming in more than just words, but through our deeds and actions as well.

This is a starting point. Let’s make the 2020s the decade of building the structure that sets the direction of our communities for the next century.

Cory King is the executive director of the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber.

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