AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite the often pessimistic view regarding Maine’s rapidly aging population, an older workforce presents as many economic opportunities as it does challenges, said a Boston economist and researcher Tuesday at the final of four forums on aging hosted by House Speaker Mark Eves.
“What we’re getting is more mature workers, looking for work, participating in the economy, and increasingly, that cohort is going to be a more educated workforce,” said John Dorrer, an economist, researcher and the former acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.
Maine’s labor market is hungry for new hires, Dorrer said, but the state must invest in making sure its older workers have the correct skills to match the economy of today, rather than the economy that existed when those workers entered the workforce.
“Skills” — more than degrees, even — “are the new currency of the labor market,” Dorrer said.
Dorrer spoke to an assembled group of lawmakers, business leaders, health care providers, education officials and others who have gathered since September to begin tackling the issue of Maine’s increasingly gray demographic.
By 2030, residents 65 and older will account for more than a quarter — 26 percent — of Maine’s population, according to state population projections, and 20 percent nationwide. In 2001, 14 percent of the state’s population was 65 and older, compared with 12 percent nationally.
As the population has grown older, so has the workforce. Before the recent recession, the average age at retirement was 57, Dorrer said. Post-recession, the average retirement age has jumped to 62. Moreover, 82 percent of workers older than 50 said they intend to keep working during retirement.
Nationally, from 1977 to 2007, the 65-and-older workforce has increased by more than double, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number of workers over 75 has grown by 172 percent.
Plus, those older workers are working more hours than ever before: In 2007, 56 percent of workers over 65 years old were working full time, while 44 percent worked part time. Just 12 years earlier, the reverse was true.
Despite the appetite among seniors to keep working later in their lives, older workers in Maine are leaving the workforce faster than young people arrive to replace them, Dorrer said. So what’s needed is a two-prong approach that focuses on keeping seniors in the workforce longer by being sensitive to their needs while also actively recruiting new employees.
“We could ultimately stall the Maine economy just as it’s getting back on its legs if our human resource strategies don’t have a dual focus, on one hand trying to stem the tide of separations [older Mainers leaving the workforce] while also getting creative about getting the new people in to do the work that needs to be done,” he said.
That could be achieved by investing in the skill sets of older Mainers, he said. They already have the maturity and experience to meet the increasing standards of critical thinking and problem solving that employers hold, Dorrer said.
Employers are increasingly skeptical of the value of degrees alone, Dorrer said, instead expecting applicants to demonstrate skills necessary to meet the demands of the job.
And those skills are increasingly intellectual in nature: From 2001 to 2009, Dorrer said, 4.8 million jobs were created that rely on that skill set, while the number of jobs that can rely on scripted routines or production have decreased by more than three million.
It’s here, Dorrer said, that older Mainers have an advantage, which should be recognized and bolstered.
“There is some real opportunity here to position mature workers to compete in an environment that values these skills,” he said. “They’ve been tested in the marketplace, they have experience to stand on.”
Previous forums hosted by Eves, a Democrat, and the Council on Aging have focused on affordable housing, long-term care, public safety and transportation. The group was brought together to provide policy recommendations for the Legislature.
Eves said Tuesday that an action plan will be ready in early 2014, after all the constituent groups that met during the roundtable put their heads together again at a large summit to be hosted in January.
“The goal was to do something different,” Eves said. “We’ve done these kind of roundtables before but it’s only been with state departments and providers. It’s too big of a burden just to place on them.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.