MICHAEL W. AUBE

Of victories big and small in economic development

Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 7:13 p.m.

Kestrel Aviation is going to Wisconsin. Last week’s announcement has left many in Maine asking, “What went wrong?” It has led to finger-pointing, thoughtful discussion and ideas of what Maine as a state can do to be more attractive to companies like Kestrel that bring jobs and the potential to improve our economy.

While we would welcome new, large, thriving business and industry to Maine — after all, we have many qualities and assets that make us attractive — it remains clear that Maine is a state of small business.

According to a variety of sources, Maine has approximately 141,000 small businesses. More than 100,000 of those are self–employers, which means approximately 41,000 businesses employ the majority of Maine’s work force.

Further, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. These entrepreneurs provide local services and retail activity but are also the first to respond when public service and community institutions need support. Visit any ice arena this time of the year and see the sponsor names adorning the young players’ jerseys. Think about who serves on local boards and commissions and who is organizing support groups for community needs. Our small businesses create and retain jobs while providing growth and sustainability to our communities and our state.

The key to the success of any business, small or large, is its employees. The work force capacity, quality and productivity are critical factors in expansion and growth. Technology and capital also are important, but absent a quality work force, small business has limited options for growth.

Groups and organizations such as the Mobilize Eastern Maine network, Eastern Maine Development Corp., the Bangor Region Development Association and the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board work cooperatively to ensure businesses seeking to come to the area and Maine-bred businesses that are looking to grow and expand have access to a quality work force.

The Tri-County Workforce Investment Board is a key partner in this collaboration. This volunteer group, appointed by the county commissioners from Penobscot, Hancock and Piscataquis counties, is made up of private sector business leaders, educators, organized labor, community-based groups, government agencies and economic development entities. The board is charged by the U.S. Department of Labor to develop local and regional plans for work force development including setting priorities for the investment of federal funds at the local level, overseeing the delivery of those programs and ensuring the accountability of those public investments. The board also acts as a forum for other community efforts to conduct strategic planning, to identify the educational and skill needs of the region’s workers and businesses and to provide financial and leadership resources to deliver skilled employees to the region’s business. Working with Eastern Maine Development Corp., the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board now develops a regional comprehensive economic development strategy that identifies business cluster development projects with the focus of job creation and career paths for the region.

The board, through its service provider, delivers financial and human resource services directly to workers being displaced from declining industries and sectors. It helps youth find their first opportunity to work and helps them develop the competencies that employers need. Older workers extend their work lives by learning new skills to go along with their reputation for having a strong work ethic and being reliable employees. The board’s services aids veterans who are returning to the civilian labor market and need assistance to translate their skills into private employment sectors along with individuals with disabilities, individuals transitioning from welfare to work and others who may need only an opportunity to demonstrate their value and abilities to employers.

For the past three years, in the depths of the most severe recession in memory, this collaborative network has worked to effectively assist hundreds of local residents obtain the education, training and supports needed to prepare them for the jobs now being created by region’s businesses in health care, construction, IT, business, transportation and other growing career fields. These workers are making extraordinary efforts to retool their knowledge and skills to ensure that they can support themselves and their families in jobs that provide a middle class standard of living. In December 2011 alone, more than 28 new job placements resulted from programs sponsored by the work force board.

Although far from 600 jobs, which we would all welcome, these 28 job placements demonstrate a serious effort to regain economic vitality in the region. It may not generate headlines, but the efforts of these organizations, along with the drive and desire of our work force, are putting Maine residents back to work. They’re re-entering the work force with new skills — marketable, in-demand skills that will enable them to pursue prosperous careers. They’re helping themselves and growing our economy.

While the addition of new jobs that number in the hundreds is a great gain, and a painful loss, we must remember to celebrate the small steps that are being made to move Maine toward economic recovery. The smaller increases are just as much of a win and should be a continuing part of our strategy to create a strong, sustainable economic future.

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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