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There have been warnings for years that Maine faced an economically worrisome shortage of workers. That time, accelerated by the pandemic, has arrived. Businesses in Maine and around the country have slowed production, reduced hours or closed completely because they can’t find enough workers.
A lot of potential explanations have been posited — extra unemployment benefits during parts of the pandemic made it more attractive to stay home rather than work; current pay levels are too low — but we now have some clearer answers for why there are more jobs than there are workers. These answers, not individual anecdotes and not entrenched beliefs, should guide policies that aim to better balance job vacancies with available workers.
In July, the Maine Department of Labor sent a survey to more than 44,000 people seeking jobs in Maine. About 2,500 responded (an admittedly small group) and the results were published earlier this month.
The top reason cited, by 34 percent of respondents, for not returning to work was a lack of opportunities that matched with a potential employee’s skill set. As a follow up, 20 percent of those surveyed said they needed additional training to be able to return to work.
Twenty-nine percent said they were offered insufficient pay to cover their expenses.
Lack of child care, especially for women, was a concern for 15 percent of those who responded to the survey.
Nearly a third of unemployed workers said concerns about COVID-19 health risks were a barrier to their return to work.
Except for the COVID concerns, these are systemic problems that have plagued Maine’s economy for a long time. Resolving them will take major changes in state policies and business practices to ensure that the needs of workers and employers are met.
State law changes may help increase the availability of trained workers, paid leave and child care. But employers can make many of the needed changes — such as raising wages and improving workplace safety — without government interference.
Raising wages has led to heated battles in the Legislature. The statewide minimum wage was raised to $12.15 an hour in January as the result of a 2016 referendum. Still, wages in many parts of Maine remain too low to cover living expenses, particularly in areas where affordable housing is in short supply. The Maine Department of Labor announced Thursday that the state minimum wage would increase to $12.75 next year to adjust for inflation, in accordance with that 2016 referendum.
Maine’s relatively stagnant population is also a continuing problem for many employers. Reports from business groups and state agencies have long warned that Maine’s population is not growing fast enough to keep up with job openings. This gap is widened as Maine’s population ages and people leave the workforce. A primary way to remedy this deficit is to encourage more people to move here, from other parts of the country and the world.
The pandemic has, of course, slowed international immigration, but so too did policies from the previous administration, which limited immigrants from many parts of the world. This has led to worker shortages such as hospitality and agriculture, which have counted on workers from other countries to fill jobs.
Lack of child care, in Maine and nationally, is keeping many people, especially women out of the workforce. In the first half of this year, 170 day care facilities in Maine had closed during the pandemic, the Portland Press Herald reported. Like other employers, day care providers say they can’t find enough workers. Low pay is one reason why.
This has many implications. If parents don’t have reliable child care, it hampers their ability to return to or join the workforce. And, if parents are paid low wages, they can’t afford higher child care costs, which are needed to raise the pay for child care workers.
These, and other workforce challenges, need urgent and sustained attention.
“This survey reinforces the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting Maine people back to work,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said when the survey was released.
It also reinforces that growing Maine’s workforce will take many policy changes and investments, from employers, the government and workers themselves.