DAVID FARMER

Blaming the jobless for unemployment

Posted Sept. 14, 2011, at 6:22 p.m.

The world is truly topsy-turvy when the governor of the state starts blaming people who don’t have a job for unemployment.

But that’s exactly what happened last week. Gov. Paul LePage, after a photo-op meeting with business owners in the state, took aim at workers. He said that Maine has 21,000 job openings and 24,000 people who are unemployed.

The problem, LePage said, is that our workers don’t have the skills necessary to take any of those jobs.

Never mind the recession, the housing collapse, offshoring and the fact that many of the folks who are unemployed live hours from where the jobs Gov. LePage touts are.

Unemployment is the fault of workers, who don’t have the right skills.

But don’t worry. Gov. LePage didn’t place all the blame on workers. He also included parents and guidance counselors.

Gov. LePage would like those folks to help lower their children’s expectations, because, you know, not everyone needs a four-year college degree.

“Quite frankly, one of the most disturbing things I heard today is our educational system is geared to send all students to a four-year college,” Gov. LePage said.

To quote Judge Smails from the movie Caddy Shack: “Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too.”

According to Gov. LePage, of the two dozen or so companies represented in his meeting last week, almost all of them are looking for skilled laborers but can’t find them.

I can’t help but wonder where they’re looking and what the details of those jobs are.

Alan Dorval of Mid-Maine Machine Products of Winslow said that he had difficulty finding skilled workers, but he also added a bit of useful perspective, according to the Bangor Daily News.

“No sector by itself can really solve this,” he said. “It needs a huge collaboration between the public and private [sectors] and education.”

Up until this year, Maine has an aggressive tool in its economic development playbook that was just that. Called the Governor’s Training Initiative, the joint program between the Maine departments of Labor and Economic and Community Development was established in 1996.

GTI provided financial assistance to Maine companies to train new workers or to make their current workforce more competitive. In short, it was a program that gave money to business to train workers in exactly the skills they need.

According to GTI’s 2010 annual report, 21 companies that year benefited from the program, accounting for 329 new jobs, while also providing training to 708 workers who needed improved skills.

Despite a weak national economy that continued to put the brakes on business investment and new hiring, GTI leveraged $700,000 to attract more than $3.2 million in private investment — all of it spent on job creation and retention.

The state paid just $675 per worker who benefited from the program — a bargain if you ask me.

Unfortunately, Gov. LePage — so concerned about workers and blaming them for a lack of skills — eliminated the program in his first two-year budget as governor. Zeroed it right out. The program can’t accept any new applications and there’s no money there to support Maine companies who are willing to provide training to their workers.

In its Measures of Growth, the Maine Development Foundation wrote: “Some of Maine’s investments intended to grow the economy and create good jobs, such as job training, education, and research and development are paying dividends — particularly in high tech and emerging specialized manufacturing industries.”

Meanwhile, instead of too many students receiving a four-year degree, we have too few.

The same MDF report says that Maine trails the rest of New England for the number of people with a college education and that of the Mainers with a degree, a greater portion have an associate’s degree than a four-year or advanced degree than our neighbors.

While Maine has improved since 2000, we still need more workers with higher degrees. Not fewer.

Unfortunately, Gov. LePage seems to have misdiagnosed the problem, placed blame on the wrong people and actually eliminated a successful public-private program that was helping to close the skills gap.

Instead of blaming workers for a lack of jobs or parents for pushing their kids to go to college, the governor’s time would be better spent bringing back a program that was getting results or working to make a college education more affordable without saddling students with mountains of debt.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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