More remote workers have been attracted to Maine during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s unclear to what degree they might help offset predictions of future worker shortages.
Businesses across the country sent workers home during the pandemic and found ways to function effectively. At the same time, many allowed employees to go a step further and telework from wherever they wanted, creating a mobile workforce that let some people return to Maine and others who had visited the state and enjoyed it to move here.
Anna-Marie Montague had researched moving to Maine to eventually retire. When the pandemic hit, her daughter lost her job and the housing market around Washington, D.C., got hot, so she decided to sell earlier than initially planned. The senior writer for a marketing agency pulled up stakes in northern Virginia last October to buy a home in Bangor.
“The pandemic was the trigger for moving earlier,” she said. “Maine was on our shortlist as we had made a trip in the summer of 2019 and really liked it.”
Montague plans to stay in Maine, as do 21 others who moved here recently and responded to a Bangor Daily News questionnaire. But there is no hard evidence of a large trend. Maine has only slightly gained in population during the coronavirus pandemic, according to recent reports. Workforce experts say there is much more to be done to gain and retain workers to beat back gloomy demographic projections in an aging state.
Among the reasons people cited for coming to Maine are easy access to outdoors activities, less crowded living conditions and lower housing prices. The one common downside to the move was slower broadband than they had before, although all said theirs was workable.
As more companies in expensive areas tell their workers they need not return to the office, workers are starting to look elsewhere to live, said Ed McKersie, president of employment agency Pro Search in Portland.
“They realize they can take that money they were spending and move to a place like Maine,” he said.
That was the case with Ryan Scott, a software engineer who moved with his architect wife from Boston to South Portland in July. The two were planning to move to Maine before the pandemic for lifestyle reasons because they have family here and can work remotely.
“We wanted more space, better access to the outdoors, less traffic and more affordable housing,” he said. “It’s a great lifestyle balance.”
The state’s revised 10-year economic forecast notes that such “teleworkers” might help offset close to 16,000 fewer jobs in Maine by 2028 as workers retire. Maine economists and businesspeople have touted in-migration as a means to develop a new workforce that could grow the economy. In her 10-year strategic economic development plan, Gov. Janet Mills said the state needs to grow its workforce by 75,000 during the decade.
But current demographic trends could also lead Maine to lose 65,000 workers over the next 10 years “unless countermeasures are taken,” said Nate Wildes, executive director of Live + Work in Maine, a nonprofit that focuses on attracting workers to Maine and keeping them here.
The state needs to attract half of the 75,000 from out of state and keep college graduates here and it still is too early to tell how much the telework trend could contribute to that, he said.
Nationally, close to 9 million people relocated from March through October 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors, basing its estimate on U.S. Postal Service data. It did not specify why people moved, although Census data found that 40 percent moved for housing reasons, including getting a larger or newer house or apartment.
During that period, Maine only gained seven people on net, with 59 people moving in, mostly from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland and New York, and another 52 leaving mostly for Florida, Minnesota and Texas, the association said. Those numbers may be low as they do not count the entire year and there may have been delays between when the home sale went through and information was reported to the post office.
In a separate study, United Van Lines found Maine ranked 14th nationally as a moving destination in 2020, with 445 shipments coming into the state and 354 going out. It was in the top 10 of states for people moving to retire (9th), for health reasons (5th) or for a lifestyle change (4th).
Falling into the latter category is Stacey Voight, a system administrator for a technology company, who moved her husband from California to Eastport last September for a lifestyle change, citing wildfires there that they were “ready to get away from” and their daughter going to college in Maine.
She teleworks for a company in California, and her husband works at a marine supply store, but plans to open a side business in custom machining. Born in Colorado, Voight spent most of her life in California but feels most comfortable in Maine.
“The first time I ever visited Maine I felt like it was home,” she said. “Part of it is the scenery, part of it’s the climate. The people are very friendly. There’s a lot to like.”
There are increasing anecdotal reports about people like Montague, Voight and Scott moving to Maine and it seems like an ongoing trend, said Peter DelGreco, president and CEO of consultancy Maine & Co.
But the state needs to make investments in broadband and other infrastructure to continue to attract and keep them and it’s still too early to tell what businesses and remote work will look like 10 years down the road, he said, let alone after the pandemic gets under control, he said.
“These are some really big shifts in how society is constructed that we’re undergoing,” DelGreco said. “The only thing I feel confident saying is it’s going to be different.”