EDITORIALS

Maine’s shrinking workforce points to one thing — we need more people

Posted Dec. 18, 2015, at 6:16 a.m.

“Mainers first” was a common refrain in reader comments reacting to the first installment of The Economy Project, the BDN’s recent three-part series on growing Maine’s economy. The first installment highlighted Maine’s need to grow its workforce through immigration.

But instead of bring new people here, especially from other countries, Maine first needs to take care of its own people, dozens of readers argued. This is not an either-or proposition; Maine must do both for the benefit of those who already call this state home.

What does it mean to help Mainers first? Those who argue this point likely aren’t recommending funding for more government benefits — especially since the state already has numerous programs to help the poor, and voters have twice elected a governor intent on shrinking the state’s welfare rolls. Instead, it likely means a focus on jobs. Numerous commenters lamented the lack of jobs for Mainers, especially in rural parts of the state. Many expressed worry that immigrants would take jobs away from longtime Mainers.

Here’s the chicken-and-egg problem. An aging, shrinking workforce can’t draw businesses to Maine, and it limits the growth of businesses that are already here and trying to grow. To draw businesses and jobs and help Maine businesses flourish, the state needs more people. And the state’s population hasn’t been growing.

Maine’s workforce, roughly 700,000 people, is expected to shrink by 20,000 workers by 2020 as older workers retire. Indeed, the bulk of expected job openings in the coming years are likely to come from the need to replace workers who retire or leave an occupation, not because the economy is creating new jobs.

Simply put, Maine needs more people, especially younger, working-age people.

“Without positive natural change, Maine will depend on net in-migration to maintain our population and workforce,” the Maine Department of Labor wrote in its report “Maine Workforce Outlook 2012-2022.” “In the recent recovery, net-migration to and from Maine has remained near zero. That trend must be reversed to maintain the size of our workforce.”

A recent survey of Maine business owners found that many of them had jobs going unfilled. The most common reason they cited was a lack of qualified candidates, which highlights a second problem: Maine doesn’t just need more workers, it needs educated workers. This doesn’t necessarily mean workers with a specific skill; instead, the economy needs workers with diverse knowledge who can transition as jobs change.

Two-thirds of those living in Maine were born in the state. Most of the rest moved here from other states; only 4 percent were born in other countries. And those living in Maine who weren’t born here have more education. Forty percent of Maine’s residents who weren’t born in the state have a bachelor’s degree, twice the rate of natives, according to a New York Times analysis of state-to-state migration. More than 50 percent of immigrants in Maine have a bachelor’s degree.

As for the notion that the state gives too much to immigrants, it is worth noting that immigrants, especially refugees, can qualify for state and federal assistance but state and federal laws governing many of these benefits restrict the period during which they are eligible.

Refugees, for example, are eligible for cash and medical assistance, entirely funded by the federal government, for eight months from their date of arrival. They receive health care through state Medicaid programs, but it’s entirely federally funded. Maine received nearly $2 million from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in the last fiscal year to pay for those services, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency responsible for settling refugees, Catholic Charities of Maine, ensures the newcomers have basic services, such as housing, food and employment services for the first 30 to 90 days.

That limited help is dwarfed by the impact immigrants, especially refugees, have on local economies. They generally find jobs quickly, earn salaries that they spend in the local community and pay taxes. Immigrants are also more likely than native-born residents to start their own businesses, their businesses are likely to have more start-up capital, and they are more likely than native-owned businesses to employ people.

With news dominated by mill closures and businesses downsizing, Maine’s economic situation can look bleak and discouraging. Growing the state’s population, especially by welcoming educated, young workers, is an integral part of the state’s revitalization.

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