Maine’s lack of diversity has an economic effect

University of Maine students and children form a human knot, which encourages teamwork and communication, that will have to be undone while holding hands. This was one of several activities organized by the university of Maine's Bodwell Center and offered Monday during Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Day at the Bangor Mall.
Gabor Degre | BDN
University of Maine students and children form a human knot, which encourages teamwork and communication, that will have to be undone while holding hands. This was one of several activities organized by the university of Maine's Bodwell Center and offered Monday during Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Day at the Bangor Mall. Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 16, 2012, at 4:53 p.m.

A new Brown University study shows Maine lagging behind other parts of the country in terms of becoming a more culturally and ethnically diverse society. Even the state’s pockets of relative multiculturalism — Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Bangor — rank among the 25 least diverse metropolitan areas in the nation, according to the study, which measured change from 1980 to 2010.

Census data show increased ethnic populations in all 16 Maine counties during the past decade, but those minor changes did little to alter the state’s demographic makeup. The face Maine turns to the global market remains 95 percent white.

That cultural homogeneity places Maine at a competitive disadvantage, especially as it relates to rebuilding the state’s aging workforce. The fact that Maine is less diverse than most other places in the United States “makes it harder to attract young, educated workers,” according to Philip Trostel, a professor of economics and policy at the University of Maine.

“The big challenge for Maine’s economy in the next 20 years is growing the workforce,” agrees Frank O’Hara, who specializes in strategic planning, community and economic development, and labor policy as vice president of Planning Decisions, a research and planning firm with offices in Portland, Hallowell and York. “With [the state’s] low birth rate, it means we have to attract people to Maine. We will have to attract a more diverse workforce.”

But the competition is fierce, and Maine starts behind most of the rest of the nation.

“Diversity pushes innovation, and there is a war for talent out there,” Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, told the Pittsburgh Business Times. “If you don’t get in and get all of that talent, you will be in trouble.”

The need to make Maine more ethnically diverse represents a response to economic reality, not a desire for social engineering. To compete for educated, young workers, Maine must become more welcoming to minorities by providing the opportunity for people to find satisfying lives here. Businesses, educators and government can play roles in facilitating that positive change.

O’Hara suggests that, in addition to promoting a Maine brand that includes “lobsters, trees and open space,” state government and private companies “can think about marketing a place in which people of more diverse backgrounds can be comfortable.”

The state’s comparatively low housing prices and peaceful quality of life can appeal to young families of all ethnicities.

Each year, the University of Maine system and the state’s private colleges welcome smart young people of many races and ethnicities to the state. But only a small percentage of students from large metropolitan areas stay in Maine after they complete their degree requirements, according to Laura Lee, assistant dean of student affairs at Bowdoin College.

A more intentional strategy to encourage college students from away to settle here after they graduate — perhaps with incentives such as loan forgiveness — would infuse youth and diversity into the state’s workforce.

Most important, any perception that Maine lacks diversity by choice must be dispelled. People of any race who consider living in Maine should be confident that, in the words of Pious Ali, a native of Ghana who lives in Portland, “Maine is a beautiful place to live and is full of warm-hearted people.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/09/16/opinion/maines-lack-of-diversity-has-an-economic-effect/ printed on August 21, 2014