The Maine Development Foundation’s first “Productivity in Maine” report, released Thursday, describes in numbers a reality that prospective and current workers experience every day: Even with a good education, it’s hard to find high-paying, satisfying jobs.
Why? Largely because of Maine’s rural nature.
As the report points out, and as Mainers and experts know, sparsely populated areas are not attractive to sectors that specialize in high-skilled jobs, like those in administration, management and professional and technical services.
The big picture? Maine ranks 48th — ahead of only Vermont and Montana — in terms of its “productivity,” measured by the average gross state product generated per person, which in 2011 was $64,566. Productivity doesn’t necessarily refer to work ethic but to the amount of capital available to workers.
Mainers’ ability to produce goods and services is not particularly hampered, it appears, by a lack of education. The state has about the same percentage of bachelor’s degree holders as the nation (though demand for college-educated workers will continue to grow).
Rather, the mix of industries that tend to pay low average wages — primarily agriculture, health care, social assistance, retail trade and manufacturing — and the state’s rural nature contribute to Maine’s relatively low productivity.
For example, the share of Maine workers in the retail sector is 28 percent higher than the share of those working in retail trades across the U.S., according to the report. Meanwhile, the share of Maine workers in management-level jobs is 38 percent lower than the national share.
How can Maine improve the state’s economy and encourage the growth of well-paying jobs? As the report’s author, University of Maine economics professor Todd Gabe points out, and as we have written in the past, greater productivity will require identifying the types of jobs and industries that can thrive in less urban areas and then enhancing them. Instead of trying to entice new industries with no base of support, Maine can build on what it does right.
Maine would be foolish to ignore its urban areas, however. Nearly all of the state’s population growth in the last decade, along with 70 percent of its economic activity, has happened in metropolitan regions, and that growth is projected to continue. How cities fare will affect the state’s overall productivity. Cities and towns need not compete antagonistically: Maine can promote the jobs and city life of Portland or Bangor along with the more country living of nearby Bowdoinham or Levant. As the organization Creative Portland found recently, smaller cities can have a competitive advantage.
Research and development can also contribute to a vibrant economy, though Maine has historically and recently lagged in this area. A consistent, meaningful investment in innovation and the commercialization of new products has been shown time after time to generate economic activity. Maine must dedicate more resources to research and development.
Of course other factors, such as high costs for education, energy and health care, impede the state’s overall productivity, too. Improving economic output requires a holistic approach.
While Maine’s rural nature is a factor in the state’s low productivity, efforts to increase productivity don’t have to result in changes to the qualities that make it a desirable place — its beautiful landscape, entrepreneurial and kind people, clean air and water, and relative peacefulness. It’s about making sure the people who do want to live in a mostly rural state can find a job that fits their qualifications and boosts their quality of life.