Maine's Labor Commissioner: How The State Is Connecting Job Seekers With Employers That Need Them

Nov 12, 2019

Maine’s unemployment rate now stands at less than 3%. But if you were to add in other categories of the labor force, such as part time workers seeking full-time jobs, and people who have given up trying to find work, the number of unemployed Mainers swells to over 20,000, which is nearly 7%. The state Department of Labor says it is trying to match all of those people with either jobs, or training programs that will lead to jobs. Maine Public’s Mal Leary spoke with Commissioner Laura Fortman about how those efforts are going.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman says the Department is trying to match all of those people with either jobs or training programs that will lead to a job.
Credit maine.gov

Leary: We have a very large number of people in Maine who don't have a job. Now, in some cases, they're looking for work, and we measure that one. But we've also got discouraged workers - I believe somewhere around 20,000. I'm not being precise because it's based on a survey estimate. That's a lot of people looking for jobs. And at the same time, we've got some commercial vendors saying there are 15,000 jobs out there. What are you doing to try to put those two together and have people with the right skill sets get the right jobs, or get the training to get to those jobs?

Fortman: That's exactly what we've been trying to work on Mal.

I think, sometimes, the way that we've been approaching it is to really get a better sense of who is not currently working, who, with supports, training or encouragement, could be in the labor force.

And they've fallen into a couple of pockets. We're doing a lot of outreach to people with disabilities and connecting them to training and services. People who are veterans, we have a "Hire-A-Vet" program. They have traditionally had difficulty finding work. In this labor market, they have been much more successful. For example, we had about 320 employers come to a job fair at the Augusta Civic Center where we're matching them with veterans. We're also doing programs with the Department of Corrections. So that is people who are coming out of jail or prison. We're connecting with them.

Do you have programs that help give them the skills that they may need now that they didn't in their past job? I'm thinking of the mill workers, where we've had a lot of paper mills shut down, but people have gone on to be nurses and all sorts of things.

I think what's a little bit different than the last time we talked, which was probably during some of those paper mill closures, is that employers are really thinking about what are the essential skills that they need, and what is it that they can be doing to help those workers as well. So it's really a partnership, where perhaps we have some job training money through some of our partners that we can put on the table.

The employers are also looking at what are the pieces that they would be willing to do? Some of the programs are things like apprenticeships that are very, very specific to the employer.

Do you have the resources to provide those trainings? Because that's a lot of people out there. And some of those programs are more expensive than others, to train people for certain jobs.

That's why partnerships are critical. And I would never say no to more money. But I think that that's why working in partnership with the community college, with our training partners, there's federal money that comes into the state that goes out to local training providers through the local workforce boards, and they're doing a really good job of working with companies in their communities as well as connecting with philanthropy.

And I think trying to package the kinds of grants, scholarships, and see what is available for the individual. You know, does the individual qualify for certain kinds of training dollars, for example. If it was a trade layoff, there's a whole suite of resources that may be available to train that person. If it's somebody who may have a disability, there may be vocational rehabilitation funds that somebody may be available for. If it's someone who, for example, just may need some short-term training, there may even be local resources.

I was at the Damariscotta-Newcastle Rotary - I'm also a member, full disclosure - but they were talking about a new grant that they are offering to help people who want to go into the trades. So part of our job is to really understand what resources are available, connect to the people who need those resources, and put them in in connection with the businesses who are looking for the workers.

So when we talk about the discouraged workers, those are often folks who are also seeking state assistance in other ways, be it TANF - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families - or whatever. Are you able to connect with HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] and leverage some resources there to get those people training for jobs?

That's a perfect question, and actually we are working closely. Commissioner Lambrew and I have been meeting and we have a couple of pilots that we have designed, that our staff is working through the details now to implement. The goal is exactly what you said: How can we make sure that we are leveraging all of the resources within state government, across departments, as well as the resources and communities? So we need to link economic development, education, workforce development to make it happen, and we're also working very closely, as I said, with corrections,

Laura Fortman, commissioner of labor. Thanks for stopping by and talking about this issue. 

Editor's note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.