June 22, 2018
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Telling full story of Maine’s economy

Job applicants listen to a presentation before the start of a job fair for veterans and their spouses in Washington in this file photo taken December 5, 2012.


It’s the time of year for lists. Bloomberg News penned the 10 “truly worst U.S. domestic policy ideas of 2012,” while CNN posted the worst 25 passwords. Whether the topic is gardening, science fiction movies, stocks or hamburgers, there is a ranking for the past year. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn there’s also a list of the “20 least- and worst-covered Maine political stories of 2012.”

The rankings were put together by Maine People Before Politics, a group run by allies of Republican Gov. Paul LePage. They were distributed by the communications director for Maine House Republicans. The list had a clear political bent and was designed to bolster Republican policies, but it made a few good points, one of which we will examine here.

The No. 12 “least- and worst-covered” story was that Maine’s unemployment and labor participation rates are stronger than the national economy. “While the Maine media covered Maine’s monthly unemployment rate, it seldom received any in-depth explanation or solid context,” the ranking explained.

Members of the media should, of course, aim to be comprehensive, explain the nuances of different economic measurements and provide background data. What’s more, when possible they should bring to life the human stories behind the numbers.

Context is not hard to come by. About 10 years ago, in November 2002, Maine’s unemployment rate was 4.2 percent, with 31,444 people out of work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the following six years, the rate fluctuated but didn’t begin to spike until 2008. It then kept increasing and peaked at 8.4 percent in the cold months of December 2009 through March 2010.

Maine’s unemployment rate has since fallen, standing at an estimated 7.2 percent in November, which was lower than the national rate of 7.7 percent.

But Maine typically doesn’t experience the same booms and busts of the nation. And any in-depth explanation about the economy should not just look at the unemployment rate. It should also examine the output of Maine workers and businesses, per capita household income and the rate of young people attaining post-secondary degrees.

These factors present a wider picture and show Maine’s limited economic opportunities. Because even if Maine has an unemployment rate that is less than the nation, it still has far to go to improve its ability to retain the workforce it pays to educate.

For example, measuring economic output per person shows that Maine’s ranking in comparison to other states hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years. Maine’s gross domestic product per capita ranked 42nd in 2011 and 41st in 2001.

And Maine is not keeping up with education targets. Nearly 60 percent of Maine jobs will require some form of postsecondary training in 2018, whether it’s a four-year degree, associate degree or a specialized skills certificate, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. But in 2010, just 37.2 percent of Maine’s 25- to 34-year-olds had a postsecondary degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

About 51,300 Mainers are currently looking for work, but what about the young Mainers who have left the state, in search of higher earnings potential and career advancement? What about the businesses that have unfilled openings but can’t find workers with the needed skills?

What about someone like Peggy Schaffer, of Vassalboro, a face behind the numbers on the labor department’s spreadsheets? She has been unemployed for nearly two years, she wrote in a recent OpEd, and though she’s had temporary work, she hasn’t found anything permanent. What about the anger and psychological feelings of insecurity that come with being laid off?

The story is indeed complex. Just as the many organizations, businesses, government agencies and schools tackling Maine’s economic problems can improve, so, too, can the media strengthen its reporting of the intricacies of a subject that affects us all.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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