NewFab Inc. has been trying to fill three jobs since spring: a metal fabricator, a production supervisor and a database programmer.
NewFab President Chip Roche said he has received 50 applications for the supervisor job but hasn’t found someone with the right skills. He didn’t have any luck with applicants for the programmer job; Roche instead found a contractor to handle the work for the Auburn-based company.
And he recently has hired someone for the fabricator position but has kept the JobsinME.com ad going because he hopes to hire another if business remains good, adding to his work force of 23.
But hiring in Maine is a challenge, even during a downturn with more than 53,000 unemployed and an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent
“We see a number of applicants, but we’re having a harder time finding people who fit exactly what we’re looking for — that’s a more difficult person to find,” said Roche. “We use fabricators, people who can weld, who can form metal, assemble — that’s a relatively high-skilled job, and it’s relatively difficult to fill.”
Roche, who bought the metal fabrication business in 2004 and has worked in manufacturing for 25 years, was one of many company owners who attended Gov. Paul LePage’s jobs summit last week. One of the main topics was the problem Roche and other companies face in Maine — the skills gap.
Companies large and small, in a variety of sectors, say they have a hard time finding workers with the right skills despite the tens of thousands of people who are unemployed and colleges graduating freshly minted workers each year.
There’s a mismatch between the skills those new students and the unemployed have and what positions are open. There’s also a geographic problem — many of the unemployed aren’t located where the job openings are. Statewide, LePage said, there are 21,000 open positions. That’s an aggregate number, the Department of Labor said, combining positions from job boards, classified ads and other sites.
Michael Dubyak, chairman and chief executive officer of Wright Express, has seen similar hiring problems, specifically when filling information technology positions. Dubyak looks in particular at the number of IT majors that Maine’s colleges are graduating and the demand for those grads.
A Department of Labor study illustrates only a 50 percent match in that area, Dubyak said. Over the next 10 years, the study predicts growth of 2,000 jobs in IT in Maine, he said, with only 1,000 graduates to fill them.
A year ago, he asked five other large companies and the state of Maine how many IT jobs they have and what percentage of those positions are filled by graduates from the University of Maine System. There were 2,000 IT jobs and only 15 percent were filled with UMS grads, he said.
Then he looked at job creation, working again with other large employers in a variety of sectors, including health care. The companies said they expected to create between 500 and 700 new IT jobs over the next five years. But the university system only will graduate 250 over that time period. This echoes LePage’s concern that students aren’t being educated for the jobs that will exist in Maine when they graduate.
To supplement its work force, Wright Express hires contractors from Massachusetts, Dubyak said. Wright Express employs more than 870 people in six countries and is headquartered in South Portland.
If you exclude IT, Wright Express can fill most of the job openings with Maine workers. The call center jobs, operations jobs, inside sales positions and most finance positions can be filled with the Maine work force. Some of the more specialized positions — requiring financial experience with a publicly held company, for example — are more difficult to fill in-state.
Marcia Leander, assistant vice president of staffing for Unum, said the company fills, on average, 150 to 160 jobs in Maine. Most are entry-level professional jobs, and the company is looking for college graduates, some fresh out of school, some with a few years of experience. Unum employs about 10,000 people worldwide and just over 3,000 in Maine, mainly in South Portland.
“I don’t think it’s easy to fill any position, but where we see broader applicant pools are in filling positions in customer service and in claims,” said Leander. “Where we need to go beyond Maine is for finance, actuarial, math, and for some of our leadership pipeline positions — we need to go regionally.”
Leander noted that Unum is seeing the same thing in Tennessee, where it also has sizable operations.
“I would not be surprised if most companies across the United States would be saying the same thing: It’s difficult to find students who have good STEM skills — science, technology, engineering, math,” said Leander.
Leander said Unum does experience the “brain drain” problem in hiring Maine students.
“As we are competing for top college students in the state, it’s not unusual for us to find they will want to work in a larger city, Boston or New York,” she said. “What we’re finding though is when they reach an age where they’re getting married and starting families, then living in Maine is more appealing and they want to work with us.”
Glenn Mills, director of economic research at the Maine Department of Labor, said there has been steady, structural unemployment in manufacturing with the loss of textile and shoe mills and other factor positions over the decades. The downturn exacerbated that and also caused heavy job losses in construction and retail, he said.
The growth area includes positions in health care, for practitioners such as nurses and technicians who run X-rays and other test equipment. Among the 21,000 job postings, about a quarter are health care-related, Mills said. Half of them require postsecondary education.
“All these people displaced from production lines or construction work, they don’t fit,” said Mills. “Even among the blue collar population, a lot of people displaced from low-skilled jobs don’t fit into the higher-skilled blue-collar positions.”
Geographically, the economically stable areas are service centers and the communities around them. Most of the job losses have been in more rural areas, he said.
The private sector is working on solutions, the employers said.
Roche is also chairman of the board of directors of the Manufacturers Association of Maine and said his sector was working to develop a criteria of skills needed by new employees and wanted to see more state training dollars focused on industry-led initiatives.
“It’s training toward an end,” said Roche.
Unum does a lot of outreach with local high schools and colleges to tell students about careers in technology and actuarial sciences at the company, said Leander. The company hosts nights where students come in and work with professionals to solve problems, she said.
And a bill in the last Legislature will create a Maine STEM collaborative to help the state’s industry and educational sector focus on those core areas.
Dubyak said the companies he has been working with have been speaking with UMaine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude and several southern Maine community colleges and universities to address the IT pipeline problem.
There are three areas they think they can have an impact, Dubyak said. The first is to keep young kids interested in STEM careers through graduation. Some answers may be offering scholarships or creating a virtual STEM curriculum online.
The second area is work with community colleges and UMaine System schools to sync the requirements for IT degrees so a student with a two-year degree can move right into a university and finish a four-year degree.
The third is to link industry better to colleges and universities, he said, through internships, work study programs or company-sponsored scholarships.