November 20, 2013

Maine State Chamber of Commerce report directs businesses to diversify the workforce

The strategy focuses on increasing the number of workers from underutilized populations and attracting workers from out of state, but economists say it ignores the need to grow job opportunities.

By Paul Koenig
Staff Writer

AUBURN — A report released Tuesday outlining strategies to grow the state’s workforce emphasizes the need to attract workers from out of state and increase the number of Mainers working.

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Making Maine Work

But some economists say it ignores a key component: creating jobs for those workers.

The report released Tuesday by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation sets a goal of growing the state’s civilian workforce by 65,000 by 2020. The number of workers in Maine total around 700,000 and has increased by around 200,000 since 1980, according to the report.

That growth has slowed each decade, and the workforce is expected to decline by about 20,000 by 2020, according to the report. Half of its goal of 65,000 new workers would come from attracting young out-of-state workers and immigrants, and the other half would come from increasing the percentage of youths, adults 65 years and older, adults with disabilities and veterans, in the workforce.

Business leaders who presented the workforce report at a press conference at Procter & Gamble in Auburn admitted that the growth goals are ambitious, but they said the targets are attainable.

“This has nowhere to go but up,” Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said at the press conference.

The report, the fourth in the organizations’ “Making Maine Work” series, is the first of two tackling the topic of the state’s workforce. The next report, expected to be released in the spring, will address the skills of Maine workers.

Some experts, however, said that although the report identifies a pressing need, it doesn’t address the interrelated issue of also increasing the number of jobs available to new workers.

Charles Colgan, a former state economist and a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, said the goal of 65,000 new workers might be realistic for 2025 or 2030, but the number of jobs in Maine aren’t expected to increase enough by 2020 to accommodate for the new workers.

“I think they hit on the idea of the size of the problem. If in fact, given the current job growth trend in Maine, if you actually grew the workforce 65,000 in the next seven years, our unemployment rate would soar because we’re not producing jobs fast enough to absorb that rate in the labor force,” Colgan said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Nonetheless, he said he thinks the report highlighted a major issue. “I hope people pay attention to it because it’s a very serious problem,” Colgan said.

David Findlay, a professor of economics at Colby College in Waterville, said in a photo interview Tuesday that he hadn’t had a chance to read all of the report, but he said a growth in workers like the report is aiming for would require an increase in the job opportunities as well.

An aspect of bringing workers to Maine from out of state is making jobs here more attractive, Findlay said. That could mean looking at the state’s tax burden compared to other places, he said.

“The goal is a worthwhile goal, but how can we entice these individuals to enter, or re-enter in some instances, the labor force?” Findlay asked.

Colgan pointed out that the averages wages in Maine across most sectors are 10 to 20 percent below national averages.

“I think the strategies they talk about in it are all useful and important, but they will not solve the problem,” he said. “What’s going to solve the program of keeping people in the workforce and attracting people outside of Maine is to pay them more.”

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