If population and workforce trends do not change from their current trajectories, Maine will lose 20,000 workers by 2020. It’s because of the state’s older population, large number of retirees, low birth rate and small number of racial and ethnic minorities. All signs point to a need for a long-term, concentrated effort to change what right now is Maine’s inevitable decline.
The state doesn’t need to look far for a model to follow: New Brunswick. It was the first province in Canada to implement a comprehensive population growth strategy, starting in 2007. It’s too early to gauge long-term success. But between 2006 and 2011, the province experienced 2.9 percent population growth, its highest growth rate since the late 1970s. (It began to experience a population decline in fiscal year 2012, however, with a 0.1 percent loss of about 1,000 people, pointing to the need for a sustained focus on workforce growth.)
There is nothing easy about developing, launching and following through on a population growth strategy. It requires realistic, incremental steps that involve the private sector and multiple state administrations, over time. It may not be a sexy topic. But it’s certainly a staple issue for those who think and care about the future of Maine’s people and businesses.
This week, the Maine Development Foundation and Maine State Chamber of Commerce released a report, “ Making Maine Work: Growing Maine’s Workforce,” that outlines ways to do two things: increase workforce participation among the state’s existing population and attract people from outside Maine to come live and work here.
Under the first strategy, by 2020, it proposes to boost by 33,000 the number of veterans, people with disabilities, seniors and disengaged youth who are working. Under the second strategy, it proposes to draw 12,000 more foreign workers and 20,000 young people to the state. In total, it aims to increase Maine’s workforce by 65,000. That means instead of losing 20,000 workers, Maine would gain 45,000.
One recommendation for reaching those goals? Pursue a route similar to New Brunswick, which created a Population Growth Secretariat in 2007 to focus on a number of policy options: immigration, youth engagement, repatriation of former New Brunswickers, family-friendly programs and integrating seniors and more people with disabilities into the workforce. Sound familiar?
Maine’s Canadian neighbor not only decided to lay out possible policy ideas but to act on them. There are too many initiatives to list here, but some include: aggressively attracting entrepreneurial immigrants, investing in language training, expanding the number of slots available to temporary foreign workers, convening a provincial youth summit, recruitment missions and connecting former New Brunswickers with employment opportunities. It set a plan and, for the most part, stuck with it — and got results.
Maine can do this, too. It has even tried to — based on New Brunswick’s own undertaking — with Gov. John Baldacci’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place, which set broad goals to preserve the “Maine brand” and facilitate growth and economic development.
The Republican-led Legislature in 2011 could have improved upon and tailored the council’s directive to focus solely on reversing the very real problem of workforce decline. Instead, it repealed the council.
Maine desperately needs state leadership to guide the collaborative, rigorous process of setting growth strategies and hold those changes to measurable objectives.