Maine’s small businesses: A pathway to economic growth

Posted May 19, 2011, at 2:42 p.m.
Last modified May 20, 2011, at 7:14 a.m.

According to a variety of sources, Maine has approximately 141,000 small businesses. More than 100,000 of those are self–employers. This means about 41,000 businesses employ the majority of Maine’s work force. In Maine, our economic engine is small business.

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy in multiple ways. They provide local services and retail activity, but the small-business owners are also often the first responders to answer the call of public service and from community organizations. They face challenges in their workplace every day as they strive to be competitive. Yet they manage to be leaders and supporters of Maine’s communities, creating a quality place to live, work and raise a family. Look to the Little League fields in our neighborhoods for evidence. See the names of sponsors on the players’ jerseys?  Who serves on local boards and commissions and organizes support groups for community needs?

The answer: Maine’s small-business owners.

We are moving into an ever-more technological and global marketplace. This presents very special challenges to Maine’s small businesses. Many businesses recognize the need to identify new ways to compete, to access capital and to rebrand their product or service to move even more quickly in a fast-paced worldwide market. They want to compete. They want to remain “open.” But the survival of their business has to be their first priority.

As Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature work to make Maine’s business climate more hospitable, Maine also needs to ensure that the needs of small businesses can be met. That can be done by modifying the way businesses are supported in our state.

Organizations such as Eastern Maine Development Corp. need to become small-business navigators. They can help small businesses identify their needs and connect them with resources that will help them advance and grow. Small businesses need support, and these organizations can provide access to credit, marketing suggestions and work force development.

Our small businesses are learning new ways to compete.

The 2011 Maine Small Business of the Year is Maine Commercial Tire. Based in Hermon, MCT was founded in 1990 and, according to its website, was originally “conceived to supply new tires, retreaded tires, and service to the many trucking businesses in Maine.”

“While discussing a vision for the new company, it was evident that the retread industry had acquired a reputation as supplying mediocre products and undependable service. MCT decided to take the high road and make a consistent effort to surpass customer expectations on every level,” the site explains. “In May of 2000 Maine Commercial Tire became the first tire dealer and first independently owned retread shop in the United States to become ISO 9002 certified.”

MCT’s innovative thinking is a clear example of meeting the marketplace’s needs by modifying the business model. Simply doing the same was not good enough to advance. Today, MCT remains a successful small business employing quality workers who are skilled in the new systems.

This model is an example of how Maine’s small businesses are the path out of the current economic recession. Our small businesses are juggling the day-to-day operations while recognizing the need for and finding opportunities for innovation. They don’t have time to navigate through federal and state programs designed to help small businesses achieve their goals. We can no longer embrace business models that provide singular support to small business and a different type of support to the potential worker. We need a system that drives our education and skills training of the work force to meet the demand of private sector job creators. We need to educate our workers for jobs that will exist. When the economy rebounds, small businesses will begin expanding their employment base. The pool of available workers must include advanced, skilled people who are “ready to work.”

Some may argue that the answer to an economic resurgence lies in new, major corporations. It would be wonderful to entice major corporations to bring their business to Maine — resulting in new jobs. But Maine’s best strategy is to invest in those who are already here. The state’s current unemployment rate is approximately 8.5 percent, or more than 35,000 people. If 25 percent of Maine’s small businesses hired one new person, more than 35,000 jobs would be created. We need to develop new strategies to advance retaining and growing small businesses while and giving them the support to expand our economy with a knowledgeable and skilled work force. We need to change the way we think about the connection between the needs of a business and the needs of our work force. Businesses need to prepare for the future and that starts with employing a work force that’s already looking forward.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corp. in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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