Democrats forming panel to address ‘skills gap’ in Maine workforce

Posted Dec. 19, 2012, at 5:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic leaders in the Maine Legislature are appointing a special panel to develop plans for cultivating a skilled workforce and helping small businesses in one of their first moves as the majority party in the House and Senate.

Democrats said Wednesday they plan to assemble a Special Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future when the new legislative session gets under way in the coming weeks.

The special committee is akin to a panel Republicans assembled two years ago to streamline government regulation. That committee produced a regulatory overhaul bill that passed the House and Senate and was signed into law last year by Gov. Paul LePage.

Democrats say they want to put a special emphasis on cultivating a skilled workforce and helping small businesses to jumpstart the state’s economy.

“I think it’s time for us to have a laser focus on the skills gap,” said Senate President Justin Alfond. “I don’t think we’ve really focused on filling the skills gap. Businesses are asking for it. Our communities are asking for it. Students are waiting in line [for training programs.]”

The skills gap refers to a shortage of workers with the skills needed to fill open jobs. A 2011 study commissioned by Southern Maine Community College projected shortages of skilled workers in a number of growing fields in Maine — including information technology and precision manufacturing — through 2018 based on current economic and educational trends.

The committee’s members have yet to be named and Democrats don’t have specific policy proposals in mind yet. They said the committee would consult with researchers, business leaders, economists and others to start developing plans and legislation.

“It’s our responsibility to deliver a short-term blueprint and then a long-term plan for the state,” Alfond said.

Alfond and Sen. Seth Goodall, the Senate Democratic leader, said the committee could take a look at workforce training programs, ways to help small businesses access capital and other areas in putting together policy proposals.

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor is interested in efforts to make structural changes in state government, such as lowering the state’s corporate tax rate, that make Maine more attractive to businesses.

“Is [the committee] going to be a catalyst for making some structural changes that Maine needs to attract businesses, to get us from 50th to the top 10 on the Forbes list?” she said, citing Maine’s placement last week on the bottom of Forbes’ list of best states for business for the third consecutive year. “If this committee is looking to make some structural changes, I think the governor would be on board with that.”

Republicans on Wednesday weren’t ready to embrace the Democrats’ plans for the special committee. Majority Democrats didn’t reach out to Republican lawmakers before they publicized news about the committee, said Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, House Republican leader.

“I’m very disappointed that I’m hearing that the Democrats are establishing and creating committees on issues of significant policy and have failed to have conversations with me or Republican leadership,” he said. “It does not bode well for the future or the work that we need to do together when Democrats seem to be out there on their own already.”

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