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A message for Maine’s youth: Hang in there; your time is coming

Posted Oct. 09, 2013, at 11:17 a.m.
University of Maine economist Jim Breece
Courtesy of University of Maine
University of Maine economist Jim Breece

It’s easy to get discouraged with all the dismal economic news swirling around these days — especially on the jobs front. One could become overwhelmed, get frustrated and give up. Don’t.

Here is advice that I provide to my students each semester. I’ve also shared it with my three adult sons — who, like most sons, act like they don’t listen but then quietly follow parental advice given years earlier.

Your time is coming and you need to prepare for it and position yourself for future opportunities. Those who do will benefit, and those who don’t will be passed over.

Yes, it’s true that Maine has the oldest population in America and will experience a shrinking workforce in the future. And, yes, it’s true that the income distribution gap in America is widening; that American citizens have not adequately saved for retirement; and the cost of health care continues to rise.

Our state and country will have enormous social and economic issues to face including more seniors in poverty and needing public assistance, more seniors needing public health benefits, chronic state and federal government budget deficits and stiff global competition from BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — and other emerging nations.

It will be challenging times that future state and federal government leaders must face. How you can help and contribute is by investing in yourself and preparing for the future.

Why should you stay positive and not get discouraged? Because within the decade baby boomers — your parents and grandparents — will be retiring in large numbers, creating a severe labor shortage that this country has not experienced in recent history. Those of you who have worked hard and differentiated yourselves from others will be recognized, scooped up and offered meaningful career opportunities — reaping substantial financial benefits. Those who don’t prepare now will simply be overlooked.

So how does one prepare for the future “good times” that will be coming? First, you must recognize that the labor market in the short run will remain weak. There are many reasons for this like the exporting of manufacturing jobs, new technologies that displace workers, and the continued presence of global competition. So now is a good time to invest in yourself and work hard to position yourself for the future and stand out from others.

Given the weak labor market, it’s unlikely that you can get a great paying job now, so you might as well make an investment in yourself. By doing so, you’re not greatly missing out financially. So attend a career/vocational training program, a community college or a university. Think about going on for a master’s degree or an advanced professional degree. Although the economic return from such an investment may not be realized immediately after graduation, it will be when the baby boomers start to retire.

But just going to school is not good enough. There will be thousands of other students graduating too that on paper will look just like you. So you must work to make yourself stand out. How? Work on the next degree where there will be fewer students competing with you. In addition, broaden your academic horizons by earning a certificate program — they only require a few extra courses.

Two certificate programs in high demand now, and there are others, are innovation engineering — no it’s not engineering, but a way of thinking — and project management, or how to manage people with diverse knowledge and stick to a timeline. Other ways to broaden your academic horizons are to partake in study abroad opportunities, meaningful internships and work experiences.

Once you graduate and are seeking your first job, you must be flexible and, most of all, be willing to do your best, work hard, don’t complain and excel.

Yes, most likely you’ll be underpaid in a job that is beneath you. You are not doing this for the immediate rewards, but for the future rewards that will come during the great labor shortage. When that time comes, management will be looking for people who can move up the corporate ladder swiftly and successfully — the “new talent” of the company. Their search for “rising stars” will be focused on current top performers. To be a rising star, you need to get started now, be diligent, don’t give up, have a positive attitude and have faith in yourself.

It’s true that employmentwise you got a bad draw in life — you’re entering the labor force at a challenging time. Graduates during the ’80s had a great employment draw in life — many of them immediately found jobs and swiftly climbed the corporate ladder. But for them, their opportunities slowed down in the ’90s. For you, your opportunities will come later in life, but only if you are prepared and seeking them.

James Breece is a professor of economics at the University of Maine. He is on the Maine Revenue Forecasting Committee and prepares outlooks and forecasts for the national and Maine economies.

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