December 15, 2018
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Maine needs more people ‘from away,’ so it needs an attitude change

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Pete Waterman of Waterman Farms in Sabattus posted a help-wanted sign along Route 126 in front of his family's farm in 2013 because he was looking for a skilled farmhand.

The conclusion of a new report on Maine’s labor force — that the state needs people from outside Maine to move here to fill jobs and grow the state’s economy — isn’t new. But the message gets more urgent as the median age in Maine increases and the state’s workforce shrinks.

An aging, shrinking workforce limits the ability of business that already are here to grow, and it makes attracting businesses to Maine a complicated proposition. To draw businesses and jobs and help Maine businesses flourish, the state needs more people.

Here are the numbers, this time from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation. From 2010-2015, the U.S. population grew 3.3 percent. Maine’s population grew only 0.1 percent. One reason for Maine’s stagnation is that people from other states and countries aren’t moving here in large enough numbers. Cumberland County, Maine’s most diverse, based on the percentage of residents born in a country other than the United States, had the largest population growth in the state, nearly 3 percent, between 2010 and 2015.

New immigrants and their children are expected to account for 83 percent of the growth in the U.S. workforce from 2000-2050, according to the report.

“We need to be part of this equation,” Dana Connors, president of the chamber, said in a news release.

A previous report by the Chamber of Commerce and Maine Development Foundation focused on growing Maine’s workforce by maximizing the participation of people already here — veterans, people with disabilities, seniors and young people. “But with our demographics, we also need to look beyond our borders to bolster our population, our workforce and our economy,” Connors said.

The latest report on Maine’s workforce came the same week as a study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that concluded: “Immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.” Overall, immigrants do not displace native workers or depress their wages. The children of immigrants grow up to pay more in taxes than the native-born U.S. peers, the study found.

Maine’s workforce, roughly 700,000 people, is expected to shrink by 20,000 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 of the creation of new jobs.

“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.” The Department of Labor’s recent update of that report, “Maine Workforce Outlook 2014-2024,” repeated the message.

Maine employers, particularly in the construction and hospitality sector, already report difficulties in filling vacant jobs.

Like other similar reports, the new report from Maine’s Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation called for programs to welcome and support new arrivals, but it also hit on a basic problem: attitude. “Where are you from?” Mainers often ask someone they meet for the first time. If the answer is not Maine, the person too often is derisively labeled as “from away.”

“The common Maine saying ‘from away’ speaks to a sense of pride in our state but also to an unnecessary and damaging division, implying that those from elsewhere can never truly be a part of our state’s social fabric and economy,” the report says. “The simple truth is that we need more people contributing to our economy to their maximum potential, regardless of when or how they got here or where they came from,” it adds.

This time, policymakers must act on these recommendations before Maine falls further behind.


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