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Remote Work Has Made Maine Attractive For Out-Of-State Talent — And We May Be In A 'Second Wave'

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Andrew Catalina
/
Maine Public file
Sand Beach and Great Head as seen from Gorham Mountain on Mount Desert Island in 2016.

If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud that has hovered over Maine’s economy, it may be the state’s newfound attractiveness to people from other states.

Nate Wildes, executive director of Live and Work in Maine, spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz to talk about this trend and what it may mean for Maine’s post-pandemic economy.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: First, talk about those trends that you’ve seen now, in the year since the pandemic reached Maine.

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Wildes: When the pandemic first hit last March, the whole world started to recognize that the things that Maine gets to enjoy every day are really important for not just safe living, but also healthy, enjoyable living.

Have you actually talked to some people who have moved here to determine what it is precisely that drew them here?

So we circulated a survey to remote workers last spring, when the pandemic first hit, to try to capture the early mindset. This was in the early days before the real estate market was just on fire, as it is still today. And what we learned at the time, early on in the pandemic, was that it sort of reaffirms the things that anecdotally a lot of us take for granted, which is the clean air, the clean water. The reality that internet is maybe not as readily available as other places, but it’s still relatively easy to find if you know where to look. Since that survey of remote workers in the spring, we’ve stayed in touch with that group. And we’ve anecdotally and statistically measured the impact of not just their quality of life, but also what kind of feedback they were getting from their employers in terms of their productivity at work. In other words, if they were happy at home, remote working, relative to going to the office, what did their employer think of that? The results over the last year have largely been that the vast majority of folks are happier remote working, the vast majority of those people’s employers are happier with their productivity of working at home. Essentially, it’s all green lights across the board. What we’re looking at is the trend very much is in Maine’s favor.

You reportedly are tracking a second wave, as you describe it, post-pandemic. What is actually pointing to that?

There are a lot more people that were hesitant to move anywhere, even if they really wanted to be here. And so we’re starting to see signs that there’s a potential of a second wave of talent wanting to be here, that were not feeling safe. Or maybe were not financially able. Or maybe were in a precarious job situation, or were still in school. Folks that were unable for whatever reason to physically relocate somewhere. Those folks, now with vaccines in hand and with travel restrictions being lifted, are now not only free to travel, but maybe very eager to do so. And so this is a great opportunity for Maine employers. There are a lot of challenges that come with that — housing, chief among them. Anyone who owns a home in Maine knows that values are going up and stock is going down.

Well, let me explore that a little bit further with you. One of trends that Mainers at least used to worry about, and may still worry about, is the so-called brain drain: Mainers who left the state because they needed to find opportunity elsewhere, and sometimes as a result didn’t return. Do you perceive that this is going to be something that is less likely to happen in the future?

Yes, short version. There’s no silver bullet here. Reality is Maine employers have a need for talent that is greater than the current population of Maine can satisfy. It is still true that there are more open positions at Maine employers than there are qualified people in Maine to fill them. We have no choice but to welcome new folks into our state. We’re not talking about a vast number of people, we’re talking about tens of thousands of people, less than 70,000 over the next 10 years. So this involves a multifaceted approach of getting adults to go back to work if they so choose, getting young people who are in college here to choose to stay when they graduate, getting young people who leave to come back later. The pandemic has accelerated a lot of that opportunity.

*For years, people have talked about the skills gap, especially in the coming 10 years. We’re going to lose a lot of electricians, plumbers, other people in the construction trades. Are these the kind of people that the pandemic is going to help us recruit? And if so, what does that pitch sound like?

Maine’s competitive advantage in the talent marketplace is very much our quality of life. We see that working, regardless of the skill or regardless of the industry that you happen to have. As an example, Bath Iron Works right now is trying to hire over the next calendar year close to 3,000 people. That’s one employer in one city in Maine, Bath. They’re going nationwide and we’re working with them to identify pools of talent that are in the trades, they’re welders, they’re electricians, they’re shipbuilders already. And we’re trying to find the folks who are predisposed to wanting the quality of life we’ve got: balanced, four season living; Bath is an incredibly safe community; has a thriving downtown; has relatively affordable housing and has access to everything from the beaches to the mountains to the fields and lakes and everything in between. I mean, for gosh sakes, we print “Vacationland” on all our license plates for a reason, right? I mean, the world knows we’re a great place to visit. Our job is simply to convert a very small percentage of those folks who get that and who want that, convert them to enjoying that quality of life year round.

Is there anything you need from a public policy standpoint, anything that the state government of Maine needs to do, or local governments perhaps, that would make your task easier?

There’s no single entity that can solve this. There’s no single policy that can solve this issue. Frankly, we think the biggest impact folks can have is simply getting involved and bringing by that fresh baked loaf of bread or the equivalent of whatever your town and community believes in. The best thing we can do to maintain the great quality of life we have is by welcoming new people, by recognizing that diversity is not just important but it’s critical to our economic and social futures. And those things are not just nice-to-haves, they’re must-dos.

For more stories in Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.