Maine’s economy is on the upswing again, and this is great news for our businesses and workforce.
From my vantage point at the Maine Department of Labor over the past year, I have seen significant positive employment trends. Our unemployment rate is falling and below 7 percent. Fewer people are receiving unemployment benefits than were at this time last year, and the numbers of first-time unemployment insurance applications are down as well. We have been hitting record numbers of new jobs on the Maine Job Bank all summer. I’ve seen more “help wanted” signs as I have traveled the state. These are all fantastic signs that more Mainers are going back to work or finding a new job more quickly.
With all this good economic news after such a challenging recession, many people just want to get back to “business as usual.” However, at the Department of Labor, we recognize that the recession changed things, and as a result, we cannot go back to business as business was prior to the recession. Our employment landscape has changed too much. Given the new economic reality of tight budgets at the state level and a shrinking workforce due to our state’s aging population, we need to forge a new path.
The LePage administration understands that Maine needs an economy that brings industry and our workforce together and maximizes the return on investment in terms of both re-employment strategies and workforce development dollars. We need a tax and regulatory environment that attracts new businesses to the state and encourages the growth of existing businesses. We need an educational system that not only attracts young families — in combination with great job opportunities — to raise their children here but also gives our young people the critical thinking skills necessary to be a valuable member of the workforce, no matter the job or employer.
Before the recession, businesses invested more in staff training. They did their own workforce development. Workers learned skills on the job or in employer-sponsored trainings. However, the deep cuts required for business survival in this recession meant the end of most of this training. Employers could hire anyone, and often could hire workers with higher-level skills. Yet, as more unemployed become re-employed, businesses are finding that there are fewer workers with the necessary skills to do the work without training — hence much of the discussion around the skills gap.
The skills gap is real. It is the gap between which industries provide good wages and are hiring — mostly in areas that require a certain degree or certification, like in health care — and workers who do not have those certifications. Many of those workers might be in their late 40s or 50s and don’t see the long-range return on an investment in training.
My message today is that there is a long-term gain to be had for investing in yourself. The long-term unemployed are often discouraged and have faced rejection for many months and years. However, with career counseling and training in computers and modern job-search techniques, that investment in self-improvement can open the door to new jobs, higher wages and good benefits. In the long term, that training translates into more in workers’ Social Security checks after retirement because of the higher wages and possible promotional opportunities workers could take advantage of for as long as they remain in the workforce.
Because of our lack of population growth, there will be opportunities for Maine’s workers to work long past 62 if they want to do so. In fact, our economic growth will depend on more and more workers choosing that path. I’m here to say: If you train for a job that you enjoy, no matter your age, you have a future in Maine.
Seize this opportunity now! Take advantage of the services that your local CareerCenter, adult education program and community college offer. The Department of Labor is working hard to bring all of our training partners and resources to bear on training workers for jobs in demand. Over the past two years, the changes that LePage has implemented in the State Workforce Investment system has doubled the real dollars spent on training for actual jobs under the federal Workforce Investment Act.
I have spent my two decades in human resource management trying to connect good people with good jobs. This continues to be my philosophy at the Department of Labor.
Enjoy your Labor Day!
Jeanne S. Paquette is commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management Maine State Council’s HR Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who helped set the stage or evolve the human resources profession in Maine.