All signs in Maine point to an urgent need to draw more people here, from beyond state borders.
Maine has a negative rate of natural population growth, meaning that over time more people are dying, and fewer are being born. At this pace, Mainers are an endangered species — especially Maine workers.
With large numbers of baby boomers expected to retire in the years ahead, combined with the state’s demographic challenges, Maine’s state economist projects the workforce will stop growing and decline by 20,000 workers by 2020.
What will that do to Maine’s businesses? How will Maine prepare for the future when it is trying to address a workforce emergency, if it does so at all?
Maine doesn’t just have to stop the “brain drain” and prevent young people from leaving. That wouldn’t be enough. Maine must draw non-Mainers. Specifically, it must draw those with talent, as knowledge-based industries are growing and need workers with high skill levels.
You’ll find many excellent programs trying to address the population problem. In the Bangor region, Fusion Bangor connects young people who live here or are thinking of moving here.
The Rising Tide Center at the University of Maine is developing a new consortium, called Maine Career Connect, that will help facilitate employment opportunities for spouses of UMaine faculty and staff.
And a group of investors, part of the new Bangor Region Investment Forum, want to fund promising, local startups — part of keeping graduates in the area in which they earn their degree.
Focusing statewide, the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future outlined more than 100 ideas for ways to help current and future workers — whether to go back to school, get retrained, access apprenticeships, participate in job sharing, or reach degree programs in rural areas. It laid out ideas for bond packages, early childhood education, and expanding high-demand programs at community colleges and universities.
All of these initiatives are welcome and important, and they mainly focus on building a relevant workforce and retaining people. State and regional leaders should focus just as heavily on boosting in-migration, which has dwindled.
Kent Peterson, CEO of Fluid Imaging Technologies in Scarborough, has proposed one strong idea. It involves creating a type of clearinghouse for people looking for or considering work in Maine. What if businesses searching for employees offered a variety of incentives — such as signing bonuses, tuition reimbursement or moving stipends — and the state organized the initiative and broadcast its existence? If put before the right people with an affinity for Maine, it could be just the push they need to come, stay and spread the word.
Indeed, a 2009 report comparing the success of various international cities to attract and retain talent stated, “It cannot be overemphasized that the first thing a potential migrant looks for is economic opportunity: a job. The strategy, therefore, must begin by identifying the economic opportunities that the region can realistically offer. In what ways can employers in the region offer migrants the chance to make their labor more valuable than it is in their current location?”
Firms that are growing in Maine have an opportunity to show prospective employers what the state has to offer; and they could benefit from enhanced collaboration. If Maine stands a chance of reversing its population trend, it will need to pursue many different ideas, including more like Peterson’s.