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Maine’s estimated unemployment rate of 3.5 percent in January hides a more complicated reality: a stagnant population, a constricting labor force, many workers with low qualifications, a substantial share of people who have given up on work, and a deepening divide between rural and urban wellbeing.
For 2016, preliminary estimates placed Maine’s civilian labor force between ages 25 and 54 at around 425,000. That number includes people both working and looking for work. In comparison, there were 67,000 more people in that age range in the labor force in 2000, at a total of 492,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The following chart shows the number of people ages 25 to 54 considered the “noninstitutional population” — meaning they’re not in the military, jail or a psychiatric facility. As that number has declined, so has the number of people in the labor force in that age category, mirroring the number of people employed in that age group.
As the number of people in their prime working years who are seeking jobs or already have them has declined, the overall population has remained steady, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, hiding massive shifts to Maine’s age structure.
In 2014, most of Maine’s 370,000 baby boomers were working. But in about two decades, the youngest baby boomers will be in their early 70s, and a small number will still be working, according to Maine’s top economists.
Meanwhile, the people younger than 19, who will replace older workers as they retire, totals only 259,000. Without accounting for people leaving or moving to Maine, that’s a gap of 111,000 workers — a significant number since it represents about 16 percent of people in the workforce today.
Economists have been talking about Maine’s shrinking number of young people for years.
In 2011, Maine began to see more deaths than births — a trend that would require a substantial inflow of residents to reverse. These data come from the U.S. Census and the Maine Office of Data Research and Vital Records:
A large aging population will place more pressure on a shrinking number of younger workers to support state and local budgets. If nothing changes, experts expect to see limited business expansion and economic growth.
But Maine’s predicted labor constriction also offers a chance to pull people into the workforce who otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t work, and to move low-paid workers up the job chain into positions that pay them more.
“This is a time, if there’s ever been a time, when the labor market’s this tight, to bring these kinds of folks in and move them up,” said John Dorrer, former director of Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. “We’re falling short in terms of the workers that we need, and it keeps the economy from growing to the extent that it could be.”
Maine has a number of public programs in place to help people improve their job prospects: to connect those with disabilities to work, to reach those who have been out of the job market for a long time, to address the low wages of certain health care professionals, and to support working parents by ensuring affordable, high-quality child care exists.
These systems, though, are largely set to autopilot, or they are greatly limited in their reach due to the way they are designed and funded.
There is promise hidden among Maine’s workforce. And, despite a pervasive belief that jobs are scarce, there are openings across the state. They just aren’t for the type of work that used to be abundant — and for which Maine’s workforce is well prepared.
Though it will be a great challenge, Maine has a chance to connect the disconnected — if the systems supporting future workers can be made to work harder.
Read the first piece in our ongoing series, Forgotten Maine Workers, here.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.