Shallow Labor Pool

Posted June 18, 2010, at 6:11 p.m.

The chief concern among Maine policy makers and would-be policy makers is growing the economy. The focus has been — correctly — on creating jobs. But there is another critical part of the equation that must not be overlooked. If Maine is to climb out of the recession with its share of growth, it must have a labor force ready to serve the sectors that are poised to expand.

As it now stands, Maine’s labor pool is shallow and unprepared.

John Dorrer, director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information for the Maine Department of Labor, spoke at the University of Maine’s Advancing Maine Conference in April. The numbers don’t lie, and the numbers aren’t good, he said.

In Maine, the labor force grew 23 percent in the period from 1966 to 1976; 19 percent in the 1976-1986 period; 15 percent in the 1986-1996 span; 8 percent from 1996 to 2006; and is projected to grow just 5 percent from 2006 to 2016.

Mr. Dorrer pointed out that male participation in the work force has leveled off at about 72 percent and female participation has hit a plateau at about 60 percent. The labor pool is aging, too. In 1986, 8 percent was 55 and older; by 2016, that age bracket will include 10 percent of workers.

“Openings in Maine occupations will be fueled by replacement demand rather than by growth in all occupations except one,” Mr. Dorrer notes. That exception, not surprisingly, is health care, as aging baby boomers will become patients in record numbers.

He also identified some trends in employment:

“Employees will work in more decentralized, specialized firms, and employer-employee relationships will become less standardized and more individualized. Slower labor force growth will encourage employers to adopt approaches to facilitate greater labor force participation among women, the elderly and people with disabilities. Greater emphasis will be placed on retraining and lifelong learning as the U.S. work force tries to stay competitive in the global marketplace and respond to technological changes.”

And two forces are at work with which Maine policy makers must contend: The “accelerated pace of technological change and unrelenting globalization.” Maine’s labor pool must be prepared to fill jobs in emerging fields or business growth in those areas will be quickly stifled. The 10 fastest growing occupations are: biomedical engineer, network systems and data analyst, home health aide, personal and home care aide, financial examiner, medical scientist, physician assistant, skin care specialist, biochemist and biophysicist, and athletic trainer. Seven of these require bachelor degrees or higher.

Maine education institutions must tailor offerings to these jobs. At the same time, a survey of employers revealed that the greatest skill shortage — by far — was in communication, so language arts must continue to be stressed.

The oft-heard refrain about Maine exporting its educated young adults can be turned on its head — the jobs won’t come unless a young educated work force is here to fill them.

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