As the American colonies were evolving in the 1700s, the region that would become Maine was prosperous in the “3 Fs:” fishing, forestry and farming. The abundance of cod, spruce, fir and agricultural space pleased the king who was happy to extract these resources for use in England. As time progressed, these natural-based products gave the colonists ideas as to how to add value to their homegrown products.
Exports were only allowed through the crown, so the colonists began demanding more independence for commerce along with religious and other freedoms. Soon the Revolutionary War — the War for Independence — was under way. Its outcome changed the way this region used its fishing, farming and forest resources and products.
Maine, which had the closest ports to Europe and an abundance of natural resources, began to add value to its products. The expansion of trade and population up rivers such as the Penobscot, Kennebec, Androscoggin and Saco, brought economic opportunity and growth to towns and cities. The waterways provided energy and navigation for movement of the products.
In the early 1800s, the increased use of machines to help systematize production provided significant opportunities and produced skilled craftsmen and workers.
This made Maine and New England the engine of the American nation. Manufacturing created wealth, communities and quality jobs for decades. As World War I began, the territory of the 13 original colonies on the Eastern seaboard was the richest region in the world with the highest standard of living.
Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, New England witnessed the closing of their textile plants, leather industry, fish processing plants and lumber mills and many others. Maine, once a leader of the manufacturing sector in the United States, lost significant jobs and businesses.
The recently released 2010 U.S. Census data provides evidence of more loss of Maine business, industry and good-paying jobs. In 2000, Maine had more than 79,000 manufacturing jobs. By the end of the decade, only 52,340 jobs existed. The new average wage for manufacturing jobs was listed as $46,281. All 16 counties in Maine lost manufacturing businesses and jobs. The counties with the most loss based on percent of work force were Kennebec (48.3 percent) and Penobscot (47 percent).
Regrettably, these lost jobs were not filled with new, better-paying jobs. Instead, jobs in the education and health services sectors came in with an average annual wage of $39,000.
Today, there is a growing movement to develop the state’s economy through manufacturing businesses. These businesses make significant investment in communities, export products to other markets and hire a skilled work force. Maine, like our nation, needs to ensure its residents are prepared to embrace the next generation of manufacturing jobs. We need to invest in lower-cost, reliable energy sources, transportation links to intermodal facilities, and education and training for current and future work forces.
In 2012, the United States is seeking to become the global leader with new products, made with more creative applications and with higher demand in the global marketplace. These industries would bring more than just jobs. They also would bring long-lasting careers for the state’s skilled work force.
Strong leadership and a focus on a strategy that builds on regional assets will result in Maine again becoming a leader in the manufacturing sector. I was pleased to read President Obama’s statement during his visit to Maine: that he wants the next generation of manufacturing “to take place right here in Maine.”
What a great goal. However, it will require hard work, partnerships and a willingness to take risks and do business in a different way to move the state in that direction.
The census also tells us Maine is the most rural state in the nation. We must think strategically about what that “brand” means. How do we build on it? What are the barriers that must be overcome?
What is clear is that private sector investors and businesses will consider the rural nature of Maine. We must be prepared to answer any questions or doubts.
The federal agencies that have helped the Midwest rebuild part of its manufacturing base must seek to identify ways to help states with less population and fewer options. Further, state government must collaborate with its regions to develop productive partnerships and strategies that are inviting and sustainable to current and potential investors. As a state, and as a nation, we are at a crossroads. Now is when we choose what we want our future to be.
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.