A help wanted sign hangs in the window of Fork & Spoon on Main Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Maine Community College System will spearhead a $60 million, four-year effort aimed at training and educating workers to reverse stark demographic trends and labor shortages holding back the state’s economy.

A new virtual center, the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce, will be created to lead the initiative, the system announced Tuesday. The project will be funded by $35 million in federal stimulus money being administered by the state, $15.5 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation and the rest from the private sector and other grants.

Maine’s status as the nation’s oldest state by median age has long been one of the biggest challenges facing businesses and policymakers. When Gov. Janet Mills unveiled a 10-year economic plan in 2019, she set a goal of growing the workforce by 75,000 even as projections showed it would contract by 65,000 over that time period as older workers retired.

The pandemic has unsettled things further. Maine lost 22,800 jobs during the pandemic from February 2020 through August 2021, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The hospitality industry alone lost about half of those. After the state lifted restrictions, many establishments saw business return to or even exceed pre-pandemic levels this summer, but worker shortages continue to limit activities.

The all-important food and lodging industry is not likely to reach past employment levels given its demographics and ongoing competition for workers from other sectors, according to HospitalityMaine, an industry group that unveiled its own more focused five-year workforce training plan last month. A Maine Department of Labor survey released last month found that job seekers across various professions are having a tough time rejoining the workforce because their skills do not match open positions.

The new center will pull together various current workforce training efforts into one system that will offer short-term training and longer-term degrees or certifications. It also aims to be a training division for small- to medium-sized employers who don’t have their own training departments. It will focus on skills mismatches, a low post-secondary education rate in Maine, the aging and shrinking workforce and the need to make education and training more accessible at work, online and within communities.

“We’re bringing new education tools to meet immediate business needs at an accelerated rate,” David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, said.

Mills said the initiative will help keep Maine competitive and “craft a new, more diverse economy that attracts businesses and empowers everyone to make a good living.”

The project, which will roll out through the end of this year, will focus around Maine Quality Centers, a short-term training arm of the community college system that plans to offer free or discounted short-term training to more than 13,000 people. The head of the centers, Dan Belyea, also will coordinate new training efforts.

The state money from the recovery initiative will be focused on training 8,500 people for the healthcare, green economy, trades, hospitality, manufacturing, education and computer technology fields. The quality centers also will work with more than 80 businesses and associations in the state to train people for specific job skills. The initiative includes a $1.2 million remote work project to train about 700 rural Mainers over the next three years.

The first stage of the project will target displaced and low wage earners. The second phase will aim to teach new skills to non-managerial workers in professions including medical transcription, customer support, information technology support, administrative assistant positions and financial services. The third phase will focus on people taking continuing education college courses. By 2024, about 65 percent of Maine’s workforce is expected to need a credential to work, up from 44 percent today.

“Businesses recognize that if they don’t have a qualified workforce, they don’t have a product or service they can deliver,” Daigler said.