This post was recently updated.

The loss of mill jobs is often in Maine news. Today, as part of a long-time trend for Maine’s paper-making industry, Madison Paper Industries in Somerset County announced it expects to shut down by May and lay off about 214 employees.

Lincoln’s mill filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last September, and its equipment was later sold at auction. In January, the owner of the paper mill in Jay filed for bankruptcy as it sought to eliminate $2.4 billion in outstanding debt.

And Verso’s paper mill in Bucksport closed in December 2014, putting more than 500 people out of work.

This chart shows a familiar trend: Employment for three subsectors of paper manufacturing have been in decline for years. Data come from Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

But while it’s widely known that papermaking employment has been falling — and will continue to fall — a broader look at Maine’s manufacturing industry shows something slightly different. While the output of papermaking has been declining, the overall manufacturing industry’s output has remained steady. As employment has fallen, productivity has risen. (Data come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.)

Where is manufacturing strong? Its output is growing in certain subsectors, such as transportation equipment and computer and electronics products. While most areas of manufacturing are shedding employees, the remaining workers are more productive due to improvements in technology and their own improved skill levels.

Manufacturing workers are, in fact, becoming more educated. According to the Center for Workforce Research and Information, “Much of the growth in manufacturing output per worker was fueled by process improvement and the introduction of new technologies. As a result, employers did not always need more workers to meet increased demand, but they did require a more skilled workforce.”

With an aging manufacturing workforce, and a need for more skilled workers, the challenge becomes a unique one: Convince highly trained people to join an industry known primarily for its employment decline. A national 2011 survey of American manufacturers, by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting, found that the misalignment of skills “is expected to take the biggest toll on skilled production jobs.”

That got others pondering whether factories themselves were doing enough to train the next generation of workers. “If we had a large nationwide shortage of skilled workers, wages would rise quickly and companies would aggressively hire and train,” Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management professor Harold L. Sirkin wrote for Bloomberg Business.

Which leads to this last graphic of average annual wages paid to manufacturing workers in Maine. (Data come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Compensation is barely increasing.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...