MICHAEL W. AUBE

Looking beyond the immediate to an economic vision

Posted April 19, 2012, at 6:03 p.m.
Last modified April 20, 2012, at 3:19 p.m.
Michael W. Aube
Courtesy photo
Michael W. Aube

The second session of Maine’s legislature came to an end this week.

Or so we thought.

Instead, the first-time use of the governor’s line-item veto requires some type of legislative action. Traditionally the second session has been reserved for dealing with carryover legislation and items of immediate need, but for the last few years, budgetary and fiscal needs have become the primary focus and concern of our elected officials.

Money, or the lack of it, has dominated discussions and debates with Gov. LePage, his cabinet and the Legislature. There is no question that it’s an issue worthy of their time but, to reference a historic event that also made headlines recently, is the current course enacting change or merely rearranging the deck chairs such as on the ill-fated Titanic?

Maine’s economy is at a crossroads. One path leads to a different economic position and the other maintains our current conditions. We need to do more than “rearrange the chairs” of our economy. We must plug the hole, actively avoid additional dangers and move toward the goal of an improved economy.

But, what is Maine’s economic vision? What is our goal and how will we get there? We should consider the fundamental and structural changes that must take place in order to be successful. How we answer these questions in a fast-paced, changing technological and financial-structured global marketplace has never been more important.

The recent release of 2010 census data places Maine in a unique and potentially perilous position. Choices must be made and more importantly, how we arrive at our choices must be a collaborative process. The decisions we make must have the support of citizens, businesses, education and our community institutions. We cannot accept a centralized, single design as Maine’s vision and economic pathway to a better future.

Significant demographic factors for Maine also can be named as potential assets. They deserve additional study and research in order to identify how we can make them work for our state. Maine continues to be the nation’s oldest state and we keep getting grayer.

Census figures put Maine’s median age at 42.7 years — up from 38.6 years in 2000. The entire country is getting older. Baby boomers are becoming senior citizens and nearly 10,000 Americans are becoming eligible for Medicare each day. Add to those numbers the large number of our neighbors who are in their 80s and beyond and continue to be part of our communities and economic system. Many of these “senior seniors” are working, either as a way to remain active or out of financial necessity. Maine’s population is aging, but we’re not slowing down and that provides an economic opportunity.

Conversely, Mainers aren’t just growing older, but our state also has a low birth rate. Our younger population isn’t increasing at a rate that will offset the numbers of “graying” residents.

According to Amanda Rector, formerly with Maine’s state planning office, “We also see the younger population, particularly college-age students, moving out of state. We also tend to see retirees and the older population moving into the state which adds to the increasing median age as well.”

How do we create positive action from our demographic reality? Can we benefit from the growth of a mature work force?

Recognizing this dilemma, in 2009 the U.S. Department of Labor supported a three-year Aging Worker Initiative, which funded 10 sites to test new models of serving mature workers. As this initiative comes to a close, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which provided technical assistance for the project, will invite leading experts on the mature work force to review what happened at the sites and develop a set of recommendations for policymakers and employers.

Maine has been selected as one of the 10 reviewed sites. The Eastern Maine Development Corp. — where I serve as president — and its partner, the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board, have participated in this effort. In addition, the Boston College Sloan Center on Aging & Work announced this week that experts on this subject will be presenting at a conference in Washington, D.C., on May 3: ” Tapping Mature Talent: Policies for a 21st Century Work f orce.”

This is an economic reality, albeit a new and potentially challenging one, is being considered nationwide and it’s one where Maine could be a leader.

A mature work force, one with talent not earned through any method other than experience and hard work, has the potential to be a key element in how we shape a new economy.

The second data piece from the 2010 census shows that Maine is the most rural state in the nation. Not only is our population “graying,” but it also is “thinning.” Maine’s population growth appears to be happening in the state’s small metros — Kittery/Portsmouth, Portland Metro, Lewiston/Auburn and the Bangor Metro — but our outlying communities remain small and rural by definition.

How we turn Maine’s position on “rural” into an asset is the next question that needs research, study and analysis. Many of us live in Maine because of its “simpler lifestyle,” lack of congestion, and livable communities. How do we brand our value of rural as a positive without destroying its uniqueness?

While working on our state’s fiscal policy concerns is important, public policy, initiatives and strategies must be developed to deal with the real demographic factors we face.

The discussion about how we can make the most of our existing assets and how we can turn realities that may be seen as detriments into assets should advance. Our governor and Legislature must find ways to move beyond only “fiscal policy.”

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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