In 1894, Congress designated the first Monday in September as a national “workingmen’s holiday.” The intent was to recognize the important contributions of working people and to pause and take a day of rest. As we pause to take a day to rest and to honor workers, we are mindful of the tremendous difficulties currently facing ordinary Maine families.
This Labor Day, more than two years since the beginnings of the Great Recession, many of our friends and neighbors are facing prolonged unemployment. The recession has led to layoffs in nearly every sector of the Maine economy and has displaced thousands of workers from jobs and careers. Many unemployed workers are relying on unemployment insurance to help them through the crisis.
It was 75 years ago in August, during the depths of the Great Depression, that the Federal Unemployment Insurance program was signed into law. The millions of workers who had been laid off from jobs had no income to provide for their families. The idea behind the unemployment insurance is simple — it serves as a tempo-rary wage insurance program for workers who lose their jobs while they seek new employment.
Over the last seven decades, the program helped ensure the financial stability for workers and communities during hard times. Generally speaking, when the economy turned around, workers could rely on their strong work ethic as a ticket to acquiring jobs in occupations similar to the ones they had lost.
But today is different. Many of the types of jobs lost in this most recent recession will not come back.
Over the last 20 years the U.S. economy has been in a state of transition. Global competition, advances in technology and demographic shifts have changed the mix of jobs in the work force and the way work is done. Although the economy has been shedding many types of jobs for the better part of the last two decades, this very difficult recession has had the effect of accelerating that decline.
Meanwhile, sectors of the economy expected to grow at the fastest clip in the future require an entirely different set of skills from the skills possessed by the workers who have experienced the largest rate of job loss. According to a recent analysis by The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 59 percent of all jobs in Maine (396,000 jobs) will require postsecondary training in 2018. Those without the right skills to be competitive in the work force risk being left behind when the economy does recover.
Just as unemployment has helped ensure stability for workers and communities for 75 years, training and education will be critical components to both workers’ security and to Maine’s future economic health.
In the last few years, thousands of unemployed workers have sought some sort of training or education to improve their skills. Elizabeth Boomer was one of those workers. After losing her job of 20 years working at a paper mill in Baileyville, Boomer knew she had to do something different if she wanted to find a job that offered stability and a living wage. She worked with Dan Molinski, a CareerCenter consultant in Machias who helped her enroll in Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program for workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign trade.
After one year enrolled in a pre-nursing program at the Washington County Community College, Elizabeth transferred to the nursing program at Eastern Maine Community College where she finished up in the nursing program. In August, she started work as a surgical nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
By any measure, this recession has been a difficult one for Maine workers, even as our job numbers start to show some signs of improvement. Many economists remain worried that the job market may not really recover for at least another year or more. Unemployment insurance has been a lifeline to many workers in this econ-omy. But without long-term changes in education, skill levels and career paths, unemployment insurance and a strong work ethic may simply not be enough.
This Labor Day we are proud to honor workers. But, also on this day all of us — workers, employers, leaders in government, communities, and educational institutions — need to be thinking about what steps we need to take together to improve the lot of workers and the state of our economy in the years ahead.
Laura Fortman is Maine’s commissioner of labor.