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Report finds wages are up in Maine, but finding workers remains a big challenge

A sign advertises for help The Goldenrod, a popular restaurant and candy shop, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in York Beach, Maine. The business is looking to hire 30 to 40 more workers in addition to the 70 or so it now employs.
Robert F. Bukaty
A sign advertises for help The Goldenrod, a popular restaurant and candy shop, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in York Beach, Maine. The business is looking to hire 30 to 40 more workers in addition to the 70 or so it now employs.

Last week, the Maine Development Foundation published its annual Measures of Growth report. It measured 30 items related to the state's economic health and prospects.

The latest report showed, among other things, that wages were up, but the state continued to face the challenge of having enough workers for the available jobs.

For more on the findings, Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with Maine Development Foundation President Yellow Light Breen and Maine's Economic Development Commissioner, Heather Johnson.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gratz: Commissioner, I'm just curious when we talk about the lack of people in the workforce, is there any answer really, besides the state, having more immigrants moving in?

Johnson: In-migration has been pretty successful in the last couple of years. Maine's in-migration rate was seventh highest in the country. So people are moving here, and that will help. The other thing that we're really focused on is ensuring that all Maine people have real opportunity to get the skills and credentials of value that will help them not only join the workforce, but really increase their own individual wage.

Gratz: There are folks who are just relocating from elsewhere in the U.S. There is also a bit of a growing immigrant population coming from abroad. But really, either way, it seems to me this always causes tensions as people compete for housing and/or jobs, etc. Yellow, is there a changing of hearts and minds that has to happen here too?

Breen: I think so. From when I talk to businesses and employers of all sizes, every industry all over the state, whether you're in far, you know, northern rural Maine, or far southern Maine on the Gold Coast, the sense of urgency of finding the people, and in addition to finding the matches in the highly skilled areas that the commissioner was talking about, we're just seeing the red hot urgency for the bodies. We need to equip them with housing and childcare. Those can't be afterthoughts. So that kind of unanimity is there that maybe wasn't there before. And I would say the other thing that I see that's there, Irwin, is that employers who never thought before about flexing the way they do business, flexing their workday, or working really hard to attract new Mainers, Mainers of color, or women into their sectors and occupations, they're thinking about it all day long now.

Gratz: One area that needs attention in the report, or where there was not a lot of progress, is research and development. Now, I've been reading Measures of Growth reports for a long time; this has been a recurring issue over the years. Are there any new ideas that could spur more research and development within the state?

Johnson: You know, we've seen real growth in life sciences. And the life sciences economy tends to be driven on research. And so I think there is reason for optimism that both the public sector and the private sector will continue to invest in life sciences as we continue to see that sector grow, and veterinary sciences. I think as we look at the leverage opportunities of private investment attracted to public catalytic investment, I think we'll continue to work on that. I don't think that there's an easy fix. But yeah, we need to continue down that path.

Breen: People who succeed in entrepreneurship are people with a kind of relentless drive and focus. And we need to bring that focus because I think all too often in public policy, we do something good. We wait four or five years, we come back to it, we do a little something more. I think to make progress on something as steep as a climb as innovation for Maine, it's got to be a relentless year after year, kind of persistence in doubling down on some of the good things we're doing.

Gratz: I was struck by the fact that out of the 30 items, the greatest number in this report, 14, were of the category that showed no significant movement. So I guess I'm wondering, and I'll ask each of you, is that a sign of stagnation? Or does it actually say something good about where the state is at the moment?

Breen: We see variable progress all the time, you know, and that's why we take the long view. We try to only assign something a gold star or a red flag if the change is really meaningful and persistent. And so you'll notice throughout, if it's only a couple of percent change, we tend to leave it gray and not assign it a big notice to the public. But those small improvements can add up. And I will mention while it is small. You know, we have seen improvement each of the last couple of years in the racial and ethnic income gap. In Maine, it's too small for us to want to celebrate, because the gap is so big, but you hope that if you can chip away at that for four or five years that it will be worth celebrating.

Gratz: The other thing I saw in education -- the state has very high marks for of course, it's work to get kids into pre-K. But as you get down to measurements of eighth grade, mathematics skills, that continues to lag. I just wonder, does this really signal that the state needs to kind of shift more of its focus to upper grades?

Breen: Well, we had a big issue. We all knew that during the pandemic, there would be big learning gaps. There are many schools in Maine whose sole focus was on making sure kids were safe and fed when they didn't have access to the school buildings. So our educators are out there under more pressure than ever. If it was easy, it would be done. But yes, I mean, these are high bars in the proficiency levels, and it's a small sample size, but that said, you know, this is a call to action, that we all need to come together to figure out how to strengthen this pipeline. The Pre-K piece is important because we know that if you're not on grade level by fourth grade, we can predict with near certainty, your lack of prospects academically and professionally. And that's, that's really sad. So the early on really counts and then we have to stay on the best practices that will help kids keep moving forward.