Franklin Countys First News

New initiative looks to connect emerging workforce with a new economy

Educators, students, economic development specialists and representatives of community action organizations met today to discuss the changing face of Maine's economy.

Educators, students, economic development specialists and representatives of community action organizations met today to discuss the changing face of Maine's economy.

FARMINGTON - Community, labor and education professionals gathered today in the Olsen Student Center to brainstorm and plan in regards to a complex proposal: how to connect the demands of the emerging state economy with its future workforce.

The Maine Futures Institute is built primarily on a partnership between the Maine Department of Labor's Center for Workforce Research and Information and the University of Maine at Farmington. The first organization collects and analyzes labor market information, while the second is an integral piece of the education system - training new teachers.

"We each bring strengths," said Theo Kalikow, UMF's president. "How do we change the story, 'you have to leave Maine to get ahead?'"

The keynote speaker was John Butera, senior economic advisor to Gov. Paul LePage, who has a 25-year career in economic development in both the public and private sectors. He said that the role of economic development, what he termed the economic paradigm, had changed in the past five or ten years. Instead of good roads, sound infrastructure and tax incentives, the new focus was on the workforce.

"The driving force behind a business's success is simple," Butera said. "It's people."

Butera said he believed that while students and the nature of the economy was always changing, the system in which connected people with careers was not. The challenge was breaking down the walls between business and education, which he said are often to inwardly focused.

John Butera, senior economic advisor in the governor's administration, gave the keynote speech at the first meeting of the Maine Futures Institute.

John Butera, senior economic advisor in the governor's administration, gave the keynote speech at the first meeting of the Maine Futures Institute.

"We must embrace change and make the tough decisions about our children's futures," Butera said.

John Dorrer, program director of Jobs for the Future, shared information regarding the recent economic collapse and shifts in which industries were growing and shrinking. Dorrer's statistics indicated 50,000 people were unemployed in the state in 2009, a number which he said likely reflected 70,000 to 80,000 actual unemployed Mainers after accounting for people who had given up searching for work. In 2008 and 2009, Maine lost 30,000 payroll jobs.

The construction, retail and manufacturing industries made up more than two thirds of the lost jobs. The fields that are growing are in the fields of health care as well as scientific and technical professions. Meanwhile, demographically the state is getting older, as the birthrate declines and fewer young people move into the state.

This has led to what Dorrer says is a common complaint in Maine companies; the state is lacking a skilled labor force capable of filling the growing demands of the industries that are actually expanding.

It begins with education. College degrees, particular bachelor degrees, are required for a larger and larger percentage of Maine's salaried positions. In 2018, one study has predicted that 59 percent of jobs in Maine will require a post-secondary education. Dorrer said that the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math, are growing particularly fast and that even rurally-located jobs for small companies typically require computer and mathematical skills.

"Clearly," Dorrer said, standing in front of a projector screen comparing salaries and degrees, "quantitative skills pay."

The Maine Futures Institute is looking to engage educators with the changing economy, in order to guide students to stable careers with a good salary, as well as to careers that may not exist yet. Professor Sheena Bunnell, who sits on the Institute's steering committee and teaches Business Economics at UMF, said that participants next intend to bring representatives of the business community into the discussion.

"[The Maine Futures Institute] is in a leadership role," Bunnell said. "That's where the gap is."

Bunnell said she saw the Institute as an organization that put information into the hands of all of the stakeholders in the workforce: businesses, students, teachers and parents, while stimulating dialogue between the participants. Bunnell said she expected more meetings, as the Institute's members develop a to-do list and list challenges and gaps in the process.

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