CONTRIBUTORS

Faulty job numbers distract from Maine’s recovery

Posted Feb. 23, 2012, at 6:06 p.m.

Several of Gov. Paul LePage’s most vocal critics have referenced questionable jobs numbers in recent weeks to try and make a case that Maine lost jobs at a rapid pace during the 2011 calendar year. Not only is the information incorrect, the scare tactics are undermining the governor’s efforts to put our economy back on track.

At issue are the volatile nonfarm jobs estimates produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For January 2011, the measure showed that Maine had the largest ever recorded monthly gain in nonfarm jobs (7,300 jobs.) Typically, however, January is a month where employers shed jobs in the aftermath of seasonal hiring that occurs before the holiday.

The estimates raised eyebrows when they were released early last year, and we now know based on actual payroll data from all Maine businesses that the surge never actually occurred. As expected, the supposed gains eroded during several subsequent months of surveys and by December 2011, the nonfarm jobs estimates were basically back where they started at the beginning of the year.

In 2011, the unemployment rate dropped from 7.5 to 7 percent and claims for jobless benefits declined in all but one month when compared to the year before.

The bottom line is that the numbers being circulated claim job gains and losses that never actually occurred. The year-end numbers, expected later this month, will likely show job gains in the private sector that will be offset by shrinkage in government jobs due primarily to reductions in the size of the state work force.

We have plenty of evidence of improvement in the private sector. Over the last year, dozens of businesses pledged investments in Maine totaling $100 million dollars, with plans to create over 1,000 new, good-paying jobs.

We celebrated the restarting of Great Northern Paper in Millinocket and welcomed a new employer, Carbonite, and the over 100 jobs it brought to the state from overseas. The new year has brought more welcome news of 125 jobs at Legacy Publishing in Westbrook and the launch of a new line of boats at Hinckley Yacht in Trenton that will provide jobs for 90 skilled production workers for the foreseeable future.

The governor’s jobs agenda is simple and effective — put the state’s financial house in order and improve the business climate so that job creators can succeed. Over the last year, the governor has made significant progress on the state’s finances through policies targeting unfunded liabilities in the pension system and addressing unsustainable growth in welfare programs.

Regulatory reforms and initiatives aimed at cutting energy prices are lowering the cost of doing business in Maine and making our state a more competitive place for employers seeking to expand or relocate.

But as our economy continues to recover, there are still challenges that must be overcome before every Mainer is back to work. Many of the jobs that were lost during the recession were concentrated in industries and occupations that had a very different set of skills than the sectors of the economy that are growing today and are expected to add jobs in the future.

Workers who are having the most difficult time in the economy today often lack the training or experience needed to be competitive in the current and future job market. So while there are over 3,000 jobs currently posted on Maine’s Job Bank, many of the employers that are hiring report that they can’t find workers with the skills that they need for the positions they are trying to fill.

Maine spends over $20 million in state and federal training dollars each year to help adult workers who are unemployed and underemployed in the job market. Historically, however, too small a share of that money has gone to providing actual job skills, and training priorities haven’t always been aligned with the work force needs of employers with jobs to fill. Maine workers deserve better.

Last month, Gov. LePage proposed a series of reforms designed to make Maine’s work force system more effective and accountable to the people it serves. High on the list is ensuring that a greater share of training funds actually support job-skill training to help workers get new jobs and stable careers. It also calls for additional input from job creators in deciding how training funds are distributed in the state and realigning training priorities so that workers have skills for careers in demand by Maine employers.

The governor has charged a new State Workforce Investment Board with carrying out this new policy and implementing new performance-based standards to evaluate performance of work force programs in terms of return on investment for taxpayers, participants and employers.

Much to the chagrin of the governor’s critics, Maine’s economy is starting to build momentum. The governor’s efforts to put the state’s fiscal house in order and lower the cost of doing business in Maine are helping create a climate where job creators can succeed and add jobs. Customized job training in demand occupations represents the final link that will help Maine workers prepare for the jobs that are inevitably in store moving forward.

Robert Winglass is commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.

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