BANGOR — Maine is the oldest state in the U.S., and the average age of residents is creeping up every year. Greater numbers of older Mainers are starting to retire, and there aren’t enough younger workers to fill all the vacancies left behind, especially in rural areas. Often younger workers are leaving the state entirely to pursue better paying positions.
What can Maine do to attract more young people to Maine and encourage those already here to stay? That was the question that the Magnetize Maine Summit, held last week in Bangor, tried to answer. It was organized and funded by Fusion Bangor, Realize Maine Network, Maine Development Foundation and Bangor Savings Bank.
More than 200 people gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn on Friday, March 31. From ways to support entrepreneurial activity, to policies to attract families, attendees answered specific questions and shared ideas. Those who weren’t able to attend the summit were able to answer the same questions with an online survey.
Listed below are the most common ideas and sentiments expressed in responses, both from the summit and in the online poll.
Click here to read the survey questions that respondents answered at the summit and online.
The high cost of education is a barrier for younger people, and loan forgiveness could be a big incentive.
The most common suggestion to support young families and help low-income students was student loan forgiveness, such as through the Opportunity Maine program.
Respondents also recognized the need to educate students in school about alternative educational pathways, such as the lower-cost community colleges, trade schools, and taking AP classes to receive college credit in high school.
“There is a push to encourage more students to attend college, but many students are not successful there,” said one online respondent. “Smaller six month or one year programs that encourage training and entrepreneurship could cost young people less and give them access to marketable skills at a younger age.”
With many students working to support themselves and pay for school, more flexible class hours before or after work and weekend classes would be beneficial, they said.
Even better, there should be more paid internships: “The mentorship, learned skills and hard work are so valuable — but so is a paycheck and will create more opportunities for more people,” said one attendee.
More scholarships, lower in-state tuition and more accessible low-interest student loans could play a role, respondents said. Keeping students informed about the scholarship and grant opportunities available to them is important as well, they said.
“There are so many programs and scholarship opportunities for lower income students to get help with college. However, there is too much inconsistency in getting the word out to students and parents about the availability of these programs,” said one attendee.
To attract young people and businesses, Maine needs better internet and reliable public transportation options.
Better broadband access statewide will attract businesses and younger citizens, attendees noted, especially high-tech companies. Better internet could attract remote workers.
“Investing in ways to allow residents of rural communities to have living wage jobs, but keep them ‘in place’ will support the overall state economy, [and] keep people living, working, [and] spending money in small towns,” said one attendee.
Improving transportation, including greater access to dependable public transportation and more bike paths and walkways, will make getting to work and around in the community easier, respondents said.
“Many professional families are looking for ease of commuting and travel,” one attendee wrote. “Dependable, quality and convenient (reliable) highway and airport access is critical.”
There needs to be more support in the form of tax incentives and funding to attract businesses and entrepreneurs.
Common ideas from attendees included: tax incentives for recent graduates to live and work in Maine; more affordable housing options and first-time home buyer grants; and more help paying for education and training.
“[The] goal should be to lower overall risk of being an entrepreneur,” one attendee said.
To bolster entrepreneurial spirit, one attendee suggested looking to other cities like Boston and San Francisco for ideas.
Another said to brand Maine as entrepreneurial. “Build entrepreneurship into the ME brand. Every logger and lobsterman is an entrepreneur. We should talk about that,” the person wrote.
“Maine needs to invest in cutting edge to get cutting edge,” wrote another.
Families, especially parents who work, want affordable, quality and accessible child-care and educational opportunities for their children.
Many attendees and online respondents agreed that Maine is a safe place to raise a family with a good sense of community, but, with Maine low on education rankings, the state needs to invest in the educational system.
“Maine consistently falls behind the rest of New England in educational rankings and this is an important factor for families looking to move to a new state,” said one online poll taker.
Other suggestions included requiring paid maternity and paternity leave, more child-care vouchers for low-income families or single parents, a greater number and more affordable child-care programs (especially at work and at local colleges), more flexible working hours for parents, and more after-school programs.
Several respondents also suggested using one of Maine’s strengths, the outdoors, to create more unique learning experiences.
“Change what ‘school’ is! Outdoor-based, experiential, place-based learning opportunities are increasingly shown to be more impactful and engaging. A diversity of educational opportunities will better meet a diversity of people,” wrote one summit attendee.
Education for all ages will help to create new business and train needed employees.
There needs to be a focus on learning business skills and entrepreneurship in middle and high schools, attendees said, along with “real world” skills and creative thinking.
Bringing in mentors for students to share their experiences and advice would give the students insight on how to start their own businesses, said one attendee.
Respondents mentioned a need for more training programs to not only help those wanting to start a business, but those who are looking for jobs and need more qualifications.
“Get employers to fund training in exchange for a pledge to work for a certain amount of time,” an attendee wrote.
According to another attendee, “We need to be dialed into employer needs. … We have to train folks for jobs that are actually available and can pay them.”
To better connect the community, Maine needs partnerships between organizations, consolidated and accessible resources, and mentorship for job seekers and potential entrepreneurs.
“We have a very supportive community of entrepreneurs that really define collaboration as a key to success,” one attendee said.
What’s missing, said another respondent, is “a seasoned mentorship program that would encourage entrepreneurs to ‘stay with it’ or ‘make needed changes.’”
Other ideas to help entrepreneurs included easing up on town and city regulations and licensing, helping start-ups through the initial steps of starting a business, and providing funding to get them going.
What’s needed may simply be a change in attitude and embracing change.
Respondents all noted a need to attract new people to Maine and retain the state’s younger population, but several noted that newcomers are not always welcomed.
“There is a pervasive ‘real Mainer’ vs outsider feeling in this state. As a young person who moved here to start a family in … Maine, it is a frustrating feeling to never be able to truly belong here,” said one online respondent.
Other respondents pointed out the lack of racial and cultural diversity in the state.
“We have to change the perception of just the ‘cold, old people state.’ Young families, I believe, look for diversity so offering programs, events, and ‘low barrier’ ways for people of color to be involved and engaged would be helpful,” said an online respondent.
“Not only might immigrants create more businesses, but a more diverse culture could make people more comfortable settling down in Maine,” said another respondent.
Maine needs to not just keep up in times of change, respondents said, but also encourage and pursue change as well.
“I love Maine, but I see a lot of fear of change and distrust of difference,” one online respondent said. “We, as a state, have to embrace change and difference.”