The best way to create good, long-term, well-paying jobs is to have great preschools — bursting with kids who are excited, primed to learn and bubbling with energy. It takes a special teacher to learn with them, but when you get the combination right — and when you have other great teachers following year after year — you have people with imagination, skills and the ability to focus on a task. In time, they will fit into the world of work, and their success is called economic development.
But if you tell this to people in their mid-50s who have just lost their jobs and are rapidly going through their scant savings, they often don’t understand what you are talking about and your priorities. To them, economic development is a job today, money to pay the bills, health insurance and a car that runs. For our region, it is jobs now, money circulating in the economy, shoppers at the mall and falling unemployment figures. Jobs in the future seem less important.
The fastest way to create jobs today is for the government to spend money on local projects. The investments by the federal government in 2009 through the American Resource and Recovery Act put many people back to work. In downtown Bangor, ARRA has given 100 construction workers at least two years of full-time, well-paid work on the $50 million federal building renovation. ARRA money also let the Bangor school department bring more jobs to our area by investing over $5 million in energy conservation retrofits, improved equipment and repair of our schools. Federal money is paying most of the bill for workers who are building a roundabout on the way to the airport. Gov. LePage has recently proposed a way to use federal workforce training dollars more efficiently so that they result in more jobs.
These are short-term solutions to the problem of jobs and economic development. They pay salaries, build our infrastructure and have a ripple effect throughout our region. They are financed by borrowing at historically low interest rates, but the money still has to be paid back when economic times improve. But this is the role of government: it steps in after a natural disaster — or a man-made one, such as our current catastrophic recession — to keep the country going until the sun returns again.
Of course, many other things besides borrowing can improve our economic climate.
Reforms to our broken health care system will be an enormous boost to Maine business.
Tax predictability and fairness will help. We need to continue to cut unnecessary regulation and red tape.
But to create wealth over the long term, we need economic development projects that build on new technology and innovation. According to Habib Dagher, director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, Maine has enough offshore wind to power much of the electric grid of the Northeast. Composite research, sustainable agriculture, new forest products and geothermal energy show great promise. Once in place these innovations will generate new development. It will not be quick, easy or cheap, but Maine can become a laboratory for the development of new, clean technologies and a center for green innovation. Projects such as these allow us to preserve our quality of life and sense of place while providing us and our children with work.
Unfortunately, Gov. LePage recently vetoed the $20 million bond issue for research and development. States that regularly bond to secure targeted R&D grants prosper more than those that do not; bonds prime the pump. This money was for exactly the kind of economic development that we need. It would have brought a few immediate jobs but would have laid the groundwork for sustainable development. It was for competitive grants administered by the Maine Technology Institute, university research labs and businesses. R&D bonds kick-start the entrepreneurial spirit that is Maine’s signature.
All of this leads us back to our schoolkids. They will be filling these jobs. The importance of preschool, Head Start and other early childhood educational programs is so well documented that it is beyond comprehension why the Legislature elected to cut $2 million from early childhood education in 2013. Early reading, arithmetic and socialization of young children prepares them for life in a complex world, one in which we must all be lifelong learners. They need a superb education so that they can be the innovative, entrepreneurial workers of the future.
For a productive forest we need an abundant ongoing supply of healthy young seedlings that we have nurtured well.
Geoffrey Gratwick is a rheumatologist who lives and works in Bangor. He also serves on the Bangor City Council and is running to represent District 32 in the Maine Senate.