December 18, 2017
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5 lessons from a look at Maine’s workforce challenges

By Erin Rhoda, BDN Staff
Updated:

There are few things more important for the health of an economy than human capital — the workers, entrepreneurs and business owners who make products or provide services that other people pay for. So when that human capital declines — in Maine’s case, its number of young and middle-aged workers — it creates more pressure on public budgets, and limits business expansion and economic growth.

If nothing changes, Maine’s top economists estimate there will be a gap of about 111,000 workers in the state over the next couple decades, as the number of people retiring surpasses the number of younger people available to replace them.

Though it isn’t a long-term fix for the state’s underlying demographic issues, Maine will need to put a “major, full-court press” on getting people on the margins of the workforce into a job, said John Dorrer, former director of Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

So the BDN’s Maine Focus team looked at what it would take for that to happen and get thousands more people into work. Here are five specific things we learned as part of our Forgotten Maine Workers series:

Revitalize job training. Maine pours millions of dollars into its community colleges and universities, which dominate discussions about workforce development. But higher education isn’t realistic for everyone, especially those who can’t afford it, aren’t academically inclined or need a job quickly.

This is where Maine’s job training system comes in. Three regional workforce boards led by businesses — based in Brunswick, Lewiston and Bangor — oversee the system and receive funding from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA, which pays for clients’ job search assistance, career counseling, classroom training and on-the-job training.

But Maine’s workforce boards are bound by regulations and performance standards concerning whom they can serve, and they have little ability to adapt to changing economic conditions. The system doesn’t work as well in a tightening labor market, since the people who haven’t found work yet are likely among the hardest to employ, and may need more time or flexibility in their job search.

The system has also been hampered by declining federal funding; it receives no direct state funds. And a host of similar job training initiatives in Maine create administrative redundancy and disperse fixed resources so they have limited effect.

The challenge to overcome is one of bureaucracy.

Beef up vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities. Maine has one of the lowest employment rates in the United States for people with disabilities. In 2015, it ranked 45th of the 50 states, with a 29.6 percent employment rate.

When comparing the rates of employment among people with and without disabilities, Maine sees the greatest disparity in employment in the nation.

The primary way Maine has to connect people with disabilities to jobs is the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation within the Maine Department of Labor, which helps people figure out their work future by setting them up with training, making sure they have needed adaptive equipment, helping them write their resumes, connecting them with experiences to learn on the job and eventually finding them jobs for which they can apply.

But the program can’t expand much within its current levels of staffing and funding. Though it has improved its reach in recent years, it still suffers from having too few support staff, and difficulty finding fully qualified counselors, retaining them and paying them competitive wages. Put together, these challenges lead to long wait times for clients and high client dropout rates.

Vocational rehabilitation sees more than three times as many people drop out each year than find employment that lasts at least 90 days, according to program data. And the division has even stopped serving an entire category of clients deemed least disabled due to insufficient funding.

If Maine wanted more people with disabilities to work, one approach would be to focus attention on this program.

Increase access to child care. There is funding currently going unused that could be helping low- and moderate-income parents to afford child care.

In each of the past four years, the state has left at least $4 million in federal child care funds unspent. These are funds earmarked for Maine that parents could use to pay for child care, or funds the state could use to increase voucher payments as a way to entice more child care providers to enroll low-income children.

But since Maine doesn’t spend all of its federal child care money, the federal government has sent millions of dollars originally earmarked for Maine to other states.

The typical cost of care for infants at a child care center, almost $9,700 annually, is more than in-state tuition at the University of Maine.

Address wages for a growing health care profession. Health care as a whole will be Maine’s job engine for the foreseeable future, and direct care workers will see some of the fastest growth. The state is anticipated to need 2,470 new direct care workers — which is the umbrella term for certified nursing assistants, personal care aides and home health aides — between 2014 and 2024, to help Maine’s burgeoning population of seniors age with dignity.

Yet at a time when demand for these caregivers is at an all-time high, the incentives to do the work are at record lows. Wages have not kept up with inflation over the past decade; high turnover and unfilled vacancies have destabilized the work environment; and there are few opportunities for advancement up the health care job chain.

Boosting wages and conditions in this sector alone is expected to not only help with the direct care workforce shortage but to have a substantial effect on the lives of low-income women and their families. Women are far overrepresented in low-income positions in Maine, and the vast majority of the large and growing direct care workforce is female.

State lawmakers have an outsize influence in determining how much this segment of the workforce earns, since most of the funding for long-term care comes from MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid. So it’s the Maine Legislature, not the free market, that sets the rates that ultimately determine the pay and other benefits direct caregivers receive.

If Maine policymakers and employers do little or nothing, they’ll likely continue to see tremendous turnover, poor wages and gaps in staffing among direct care workers. Or they could harness the industry’s growth for the betterment of workers by figuring out how to compensate them fairly and turn the profession into a starting point for advancement in the field.

Better understand men. Forty years ago, it was almost unheard of for a man between the ages of 25 and 54 to be out of the workforce, meaning neither working nor looking for work. But today some 15 percent of Maine men in that age range — about 37,000 in total — have left the labor force.

While some of these men in their prime may be working off the books or on occasional seasonal gigs, many of them are idle.

But there are several things no one seems to know about what’s going on with them. Are criminal records affecting their prospects? How many who are able to work are being lured away from jobs by disability benefits, and how many are turning to disability benefits because there are no good jobs for them?

Nearly half of men aged 25 to 54 who aren’t in the national labor force take pain medication daily, and in two thirds of those cases they take prescription pain medication, according to a 2016 paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger.

What’s not known, however, is which came first. Are men turning to opiates and other drugs because they are out of work, or are they leaving work because they are addicted to drugs?

Figuring out just who these men are and how to support them could help return meaning to their lives and ensure employers have workers to power Maine’s economy.


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