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Business and Economy

Maine Construction Jobs Reach Pre-Pandemic Levels, But Challenges Remain For Hard-Hit Sectors

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Linda Coan O'Kresik
/
BDN
Crews from Devoe Construction of Eagle Lake and Black Bear Crane of Hermon were on site in downtown Bangor on April 8, 2021 to install the first two of five steel segments of the Willard C. Orr pedestrian footbridge over the Kenduskeag Stream.

Maine experienced a renovation boom in April, with construction among the sectors climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, according to data released Friday by the Maine Department of Labor.

The department said the positive jobs trend in April reflects a more open economy and changes workers made during the pandemic, including a massive government intervention that led to trillions in stimulus. Billions of that filtered down to Maine.

“People built out home offices and there was an upswing in spending for other construction activities,” Glenn Mills, chief economist for the department’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, said.

Those trends during the lightning-speed recession and partial recovery were the opposite of what happened during the Great Recession, when people put off big-ticket purchases, which hurt the construction and manufacturing industries, he said. During the pandemic, construction jobs in April hit a seasonally adjusted 31,200, compared to 28,400 a year ago.

Segments hit harder by the pandemic such as hospitality are recovering more slowly, but gained ground in April. Accommodation and food services jobs reached 48,500 in April as the state’s economy began to reopen. But that’s below the 58,600 jobs in that industry in March 2020.

It will take a while for the economy as a whole to recover, which is common after a recession or major disruption to the labor market like the pandemic, Mills said.

“We continue to improve,” Mills said. “Things are much better than they were 14 months ago.”

The new jobs figures came just before Maine’s labor department restarts work search requirements on Sunday. The state’s unemployment rate stayed at 4.8 percent for the third consecutive month and was down from the 9.1 percent in April 2020, the worst month of the pandemic with many businesses closed. Nationally, the unemployment rate decreased in 12 states and the District of Columbia in April, including in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.

Mills said one of the biggest factors keeping people from going back to work in Maine is caring for kids who still aren’t in school full time. Other workers may have safety concerns or underlying health conditions. Still others may not find jobs in their local area and may not be able to move for a new job. There also may be a mismatch of skills to available jobs.

But Maine struggled with slow labor force growth before the pandemic and is facing long-term challenges, economist John Dorrer, a former director of Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, said. The pandemic accelerated the retirement of baby boomers, creating a tight labor market. Many teleworkers who moved to Maine during the pandemic kept existing jobs, so they didn’t add to the local workforce, he said.

Many who were laid off are taking their time to choose how they come back to the labor force, he said.

“They’re going to be more cautious about the kinds of jobs they take,” Dorrer said. “They may opt for more skills training.”

He said the $35 million from federal stimulus monies that Gov. Janet Mills wants to use for workforce training through community colleges will give options to a lot of workers.

Dorrer said he expects Maine’s economy to see strong growth and “hit its stride” in 2022 or 2023. He said it won’t take the nine years of the Great Recession to recover, because the recession that accompanied the pandemic was not caused by the structural economic problems of the 2007-2009 recession, but by health concerns.

“So I think the economy will come back stronger and faster,” he said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.