AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage gathered two dozen Maine employers from a broad cross-section of industries to the Blaine House on Friday to talk about strategies for improving the sluggish job market.
The problem, the governor learned, is not a lack of jobs. The problem is that Maine’s labor force is not adequately skilled to fill the jobs that are available.
That needs to change, LePage said.
“One of the most disturbing things I heard is that our education system is geared to send all students to a four-year college,” the governor said after Friday’s round-table discussion. “Sports management is a great career path if your intent is to leave Maine from day one, but if you’d like to remain, we’d like to get you into a career path where you can earn a living.”
According to the most recent statistics, there are roughly 24,000 Mainers collecting unemployment. By contrast, LePage said there are currently 21,000 job postings statewide, predominantly skill jobs or jobs that require expertise in a particular trade.
“Just about every single employer in that room today is looking for skilled labor and they can’t find it,” he said.
Alan Dorval with Mid-Maine Machine Products of Winslow said his business is among the many with openings for skilled laborers but he can’t find qualified applicants. Others who attended Friday’s event at the Blaine House shared similar concerns.
CNBC recently ranked states on a variety a business-related criteria. Among those criteria were quality of workforce, which looked at education levels, the number of available workers and job placement. Maine ranked 44th.
The linchpin of Friday’s discussion was education, both K-12 education and post-secondary education, and Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude were among those who joined the governor’s round-table discussion.
As it turns out, the concerns from businesses seemed to fall in line with the governor’s idea to create a 5-year high school program that readies students for jobs in the real world. That idea was one of the centerpieces of his campaign last fall and, just last month, LePage announced the creation of a task force that will examine what is possible and when.
Dorval said society at large is saddled with the belief that hands-on, skill-heavy jobs are somehow lesser. In reality, he explained, those skilled workers are making just as much money.
“No sector by itself can really solve this,” he said. “It needs a huge collaboration between the public and private [sectors] and education. But the groundwork is here out of this meeting to move forward and address this problem.”
Still, the problem is not new. In February, the Department of Labor announced the launch of a computer-based program that allows the state to match worker skills with job openings.
The problem is not unique to Maine, either, according to Robert Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, who talked about the mismatch during a presentation to the governor and business leaders on Friday.
Schwartz said people’s aspirations need to change to meet “the emerging needs of employers and the skill gaps of young people coming through the system.”
Dorval said he was encouraged by Friday’s meeting and by the governor’s willingness to keep an open line of communication with the business sector.
LePage said he would continuing listening to the needs of Maine employers but stressed that a solution would take time.
Asked what types of industries could be targeted, LePage kept it simple.
“Maine was prosperous one time in forestry, in fishing and farming, and we need to go back to the basics,” he said.
Education plays a big role, the governor said, but it needs to start at home.
“We need to educate parents about the opportunities in Maine,” he said. “We need to make sure that kids have skill sets for life, not just for academics.”