2021 is surging forward with the pent-up pressure of a recently unkinked hose, making nearly every business leader I speak with almost too busy to chat. Businesses are tremendously busy trying to get back to normal, and hoping to exceed it, in order to make up for any 2020 losses.

Lodging properties are looking to roar back, so they’re busy making their final pre-summer preparations. The housing industry is on fire, with houses under contract days after they get listed, and going above the asking price, keeping realtors busy juggling multiple bids and seeking out new listings. Educators are hoping they’ve made their final adjustments to their teaching methods so they can make one final sprint towards summer break.

Retail numbers have begun to soar with a stimulus-fueled economy on the rise, but many retailers still need workers. Restaurants are preparing to expand their outdoor dining again, and many are saying they’ve never seen staffing shortages like this. All the while, the healthcare workers are just trying to keep all of us safe and healthy.

Everyone is tremendously busy. We’re so busy, in fact, that you could hardly blame us for not carving out any time for long-range planning. The title of this column is almost a slap in the face to the busy business leaders. If you need to focus on getting through the next nine months, how can anyone hold you accountable for not thinking about the next nine years? I get it.

That’s where people like me need come in. Long range planning is an exercise for those privileged enough to have the time to do it. That’s not to say a busy business leader can’t do long range planning, but it sure helps if you don’t have a dozen other tasks all vying for your immediate attention like many business leaders do.

As the chamber of commerce director, of course I’m busy, but not busy in the same way as others. I don’t have dozens of customers at my door when I open, or a crew awaiting instructions for their job site, or the hundreds of other scenarios that confront so many service-focused industries. Chamber of commerce directors, workforce development professionals, administrators, municipal leaders, legislative representatives and others like us have a responsibility to do the long-range planning for those that don’t have the time. We must convene the sessions, gather the business input and create the solutions.

We’re hoping to launch a chamber-led workforce program this fall and expand it annually, the program will try to create solutions for these issues. If we don’t start planning solutions now, we will be, as an old friend of mine used to say, “in a bad way” if they come to fruition. Let me give you two concrete examples of issues that will become more burdensome unless we find solutions.

Housing for employees

Right now, I have five different businesses who’ve asked if I can find a rental for their critical staff people. A fellow chamber director in another part of Maine, just posted on their personal Facebook page a plea for rentals in their region for three different businesses. A hot real estate market is great for the sellers and brings more people from other regions of the country to make their roots here — that is excellent. The market has led to some landlords deciding to sell their rental properties and thus ending their tenants’ leases in order to sell to new homeowners.

I don’t blame any property owner for getting top dollar on their investment, but it leaves us with a very practical problem. If we don’t have available housing that employees in the region can afford, then by definition, the employees can’t live and work there. What plans can we make in 2021 to ensure we’ll have affordable rental and purchase properties in our expanding region by 2030?

Childcare costs

We want young families to move to our region and those living here to start families. As the oldest state, we need young families in our workforce. However, childcare costs and availability can difficult for many parents. The childcare providers are often doing all they can to make it affordable but with the specific industry regulations, payroll costs and other expenses, there’s only so much they can do to reduce the price. Lifelong Mainers might have family members in the region who can help bear some of the childcare burden, but for families relocating to Maine, they’re in need of full-time childcare. Routinely this is hundreds of dollars per month, many refer to it as a second mortgage payment. For some two-parent households, the majority of one parent’s salary goes to childcare, while other families, if their wages won’t exceed the childcare cost, they will stay out of the workforce.

There are young couples in Maine who aren’t having additional children because they can’t afford the childcare. In the Portland region, availability has gotten to the point where some childcare centers tell you that in order to get on their wait lists in time, you need to apply before you know you’re pregnant.

Maine has a record number of Baby Boomers leaving the workforce between now and 2030, and we’ll need younger workers to replace them. What plans can we make in 2021 to offset childcare expenses for both parents and childcare facilities, to encourage more Mainers to grow their families here?

That’s just two issues. There’s also succession planning for businesses that we discussed last week, transportation issues for employees, workforce education/training, and much more. There’s no one to blame for these issues not being solved yet, but we can’t hand these down to the next generation either. As busy as we are, some of us need to take on this responsibility now, and in doing so, we’ll help secure a more sustainable future for everyone. We will revisit these topics periodically throughout the year in this column.

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

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