January 19, 2020
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Success of state economic plan depends on follow through

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Gov. Janet Mills releases Maine's 10-year economic plan on Wednesday at Robbins Lumber, Inc. in Searsmont.

There are a lot of good ideas in the 10-year strategic economic plan unveiled by Gov. Janet Mills this week. The calls to grow the state’s workforce, raise wages, enhance education and training, expand broadband, invest in research and development, promote clean energy development are all good ideas. But, forgive our skepticism for noting that they’ve all been proposed before. And encouragingly, progress is already being made in some of these areas.

The question is how this effort will be different from the many others that have come before it. One potential answer is that this is more a vision than a plan. Rather than a plan from a legislative task force, this is the result of conversations with 1,300 people over nine months. Many of the solutions identified call for action from private business, non-profit groups and others outside of government. This is a benefit of the plan, but also a potential drawback.

It is encouraging — and ultimately more practical — to put the onus for improving Maine on groups and people outside of Augusta. This distances the plan from the yearly budget battles in the State House and from who occupies the Blaine House. A downside, however, is that no one entity is charging with pushing the plan’s many goals forward.

We appreciate that the state now has a cheerleader in chief in Mills, as opposed to a naysayer who badmouthed Maine and its residents as former Gov. Paul LePage frequently did. Certainly a change in attitude is welcome and can help, but, as Mills has acknowledged, it will take more than good intentions and a positive attitude to change Maine’s demographic destiny.

“Maine stands at an economic crossroads,” the governor said in a statement accompanying the plan’s release. “Our traditional industries — farming, forestry and fishing — have laid a strong economic foundation for our state, and the time has come for us to build on that.”

“This strategic plan creates a roadmap to foster collaboration, drive innovation, jumpstart growth, and, ultimately, achieve a diverse, forward-looking economy that offers everyone an opportunity to succeed,” she added. “Out of it, I hope that our state will become a hub of innovation and excellence — a place where people can establish roots and live happy and fulfilling lives, and where entrepreneurs can take risks, grow their businesses and create jobs. Maine, like any state, has its challenges, but we also have great opportunities — and because of that, I have great hope for our future.”

The plan doesn’t shy away from some of the bad news: Maine’s labor force is stagnant, earnings in Maine aren’t keeping pace with the national average — nor is the state’s gross domestic product. But, building on the work of numerous groups that have recommended steps to improve, grow and diversify the state’s economy, the new plan offers a compelling way forward.

Its message is simple, and familiar. It has three main goals: to grow Maine’ workforce by 75,000 people, to raise the average annual wage by 10 percent and to increase the value of what Maine workers produce by 10 percent.

The plans to meet each goal are familiar. To grow its workforce, Maine needs to ensure people who are currently on the sidelines — perhaps because of disabilities, substance use or a criminal record — are brought back into the workforce. Attracting new people to Maine, raising education levels and removing barriers to employment, such as lack of childcare and public transportation options, are also part of the plan.

To increase wages and the value of work done in Maine, the plan calls for a focus on clean energy and bio-based industries, such as creating new uses for wood products.

Perhaps one of the plan’s most persuasive elements is highlighting innovative efforts that are already underway. For example, Central Maine Motors in Waterville works with local high schools to build a workforce pipeline by identifying students who are interested in automotive careers and helping to train them. The students can work their way from washing cars through apprenticeships to full-time employment over the course of several years.

Building on such innovations, rather than creating new government-funded programs, is a promising path forward for Maine.

The Mills administration has laid out a strong roadmap for Maine’s economic development over the next decade. The challenge, as is always the case, is to stick with a coherent vision and a small core of initiatives for many years, through changes in legislative leadership and chief executives.

 



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