Mainers have always been a hardy and resourceful people, but the Great Recession has hit parts of the state like a nor’easter. For far too many Mainers, this Labor Day is marked by anxiety for what calamities the future may bring rather than expectations for the promise it can hold. Instead of relaxing, they’re concerned about finding and keeping a job, how they will support their families and pay the bills.
I understand, and my heart goes out to everyone still searching for employment. While Maine’s overall unemployment rate in July was below the national level, at 8.1 percent, it is still unacceptably high. And several Maine counties have much higher rates, up to 11.3 percent in Piscataquis County.
For the thousands of Mainers who have been displaced from their jobs, these statistics reflect more than numbers. They are a reflection of a bitter reality. They are right in asking what’s being done to help them get back on their feet and find a route to gainful and sustainable employment.
The U.S. Department of Labor is working to help Mainers get the training they need for jobs in promising industries. We are also working to help some of the state’s working families maintain their households during periods of unemployment. Our efforts in Maine follow a number of paths.
First is the basic safety net. We provide employment and training funds to the state of Maine to pay vitally needed unemployment benefits. We also help fund the career centers, which provide job search assistance for those Mainers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
Second, we’ve responded to job losses in a variety of industries. Over the past year alone, we’ve provided nearly $2 million in grants to provide employment-related services to help laid-off Maine workers. Paper workers in Rumford, boat builders in Trenton, electronics workers in Pittsfield, textile workers in Biddeford and automotive industry workers in Auburn have upgraded existing skills or prepared for careers in new industries.
Third, we’re supporting innovative programs to help prepare Mainers for well-paying careers in growing fields — the kind that will be in demand for years to come. This includes a $2.1 million green jobs grant to the Eastern Maine Development Corp. to implement a green construction skills training program. It will help chart a pathway out of poverty for disadvantaged adult job seekers, dislocated workers, veterans, high school dropouts, returning offenders and public assistance recipients in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
We’ve also committed over $2 million for YouthBuild projects through Goodwill Industries of Northern New England Inc. and Learning Works. The department’s YouthBuild program assists out-of-school youth in obtaining their diplomas or GEDs while providing occupational training in the construction industry. YouthBuild participants will also learn green building techniques, acquire leadership skills and participate in community service.
At the other end of the age spectrum, we’ve awarded a $1 million grant to Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. for the Seasoned Worker Opportunity Project, which will connect older workers in the state to occupations critical to the Maine economy, including health care and energy-green construction. It will also educate employers about the value of older workers.
We recognize that an investment in getting Mainers back to work is an investment in the American economy as a whole. Maine, like much of New England, has seen its traditional manufacturing base erode in the wake of technological and economic change. These grants focus on the future.
I believe that we are moving forward. Progress may not be as fast or as broad as we would like, but it is under way. It is my wish that next year and on successive Labor Days I’ll find many more Mainers celebrating this holiday the way it should be: as a well-deserved day of rest from their secure, full-time jobs.
Hilda L. Solis is the U.S. secretary of labor.