Puritan Medical Products continues to be one of the brightest spots in Maine industry coming out of the COVID era. But that doesn’t mean they are immune to the realities of building a business in Maine.

An employee of Puritan Medical Products places swabs on a conveyor last June. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer, File

When the pandemic hit last year, Guilford-based Puritan was the only American company making the swabs needed for COVID-19 tests, and they ramped up production to meet the need, adding two new plants in Pittsfield along with 900 jobs.

Puritan will now expand out of state, using $150 million in federal funds to build a new plant in Orlinda, Tennessee, chosen for its workforce in addition to the government’s need to see production spread out geographically.

Given the government mandate, those jobs were never going to be in Maine. But even if geography was not a factor, Puritan would have had trouble finding the hundreds more workers necessary for another plant. That’s not a good sign, and it’s indicative of what business owners around the state are grappling with.

The Tennessee site is between Nashville and Bowling Green, giving Puritan access to far more workers than can be found from Guilford. “We’re operating mostly in rural areas, so there isn’t a huge population base to pull from,” Puritan General Manager Scott Wellman told the Bangor Daily News.

In fact, the two metro areas near Orlinda, combined, are much bigger than Maine as a whole, underscoring the challenge Maine faces as its workforce ages and shrinks. Not only are the number of workers in the state insufficient in many cases to attract outside investment, but the shortage also leaves employers already here struggling to find employees. Forget hiring to grow – many Maine businesses are having trouble just filling the spots they need to get by.

The workforce shortage challenged nearly every industry here before the pandemic and there is no sign of a letup, even if the dynamics have changed some as a result of COVID.

The hospitality industry in Maine, for example, has struggled for years to find enough workers; the pandemic has only made it worse, raising issues of safety and workload, and making some people reconsider whether they want to be in the industry at all.

Maine is not helpless against its demographic trend.

For one, the pandemic highlighted just how much of a factor family obligations play in whether someone is able to work, particularly women. The lack of care for children or the older generation means many women have to stay home.

Adequately supporting the care industry, as would happen under bills now in the Legislature, would help make sure that everyone who wants to work is able to – and that a lot of those workers would be paid a livable wage.

Immigrants and refugees also make a great addition to the state workforce, bringing skills, numbers and youth to a state that could use all three.

In industries across Maine, a big portion of workers are reaching retirement age. Without workers to replace them, Mainers won’t have enough people to deliver our goods or care for our loved ones. There won’t be people to come help expand a business ready to grow.

That’s the reality, and it’s one we all have to deal with.


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