The Great Recession still casts a shadow over us, perhaps tamping down confidence in the economy in some quarters. But the truth about Maine’s employment situation is quite bright. The state’s unemployment rate as of May, the last month for which numbers were available, is about 3.2 percent. It’s even lower in some of the southern coastal counties.
But there is a cloud looming over this rosy picture. It’s not too few jobs, but too few employees. Or, more accurately, too few employees in the right geographical locations, and too few prospective workers with the right training.
That shortage is being seen mostly dramatically these days in the tourism economy, which is often seasonal in nature. But it also looms over the year-round economy, mostly because of our unhappy status as the oldest state in the country, with a median age of 43.5.
The shortage in job applicants is made worse by the lack of appropriate education and training among those young adults who are seeking jobs. And this is one front on which policy makers can make a difference.
Educational leaders have been making the point for several years that not every high school graduate should aim for further education at a four-year liberal arts college. Not every high school grad will succeed in a traditional college setting, but more to the point, not going to college doesn’t mean the recent grad must go to work flipping burgers.
Many businesses and nonprofit organizations need to fill jobs that require specific skill sets, and they’re happy to provide that training, especially to those who have made the effort to complete education beyond high school. Prospective employees who complete two years of community college have shown an employer they are able to learn, and have the perseverance to complete an academic discipline. Those community college grads will start on a higher rung on the job ladder.
Many jobs, particularly in the huge health care sector, require training courses even shorter than two years, but once a CNA—for example—is on the job, he or she can pursue more healthcare education and training and then apply for higher-skilled jobs in medicine.
The technology sector is yet another example, where training in such diverse fields as solar panel installation and computer systems management will offer broad employment choices. And of course, the building trades—electrician, plumber, carpenter—also require supervised apprenticeship experience and training for the employee to enjoy maximum compensation.
Our four-year colleges and universities will continue to educate the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs, and the state must continue to invest in those institutions to keep tuition rates affordable.
But so much more can be done.
Community college funding must be robust. Technical schools for both high school students and high school graduates must be funded at a level that allows them to be teaching and demonstrating the latest equipment and techniques. State funding should be offered to reimburse employers who offer on-the-job training opportunities. Parents and young adults living on their own should have tax exemptions for tuition and training, and the books and equipment that accompany that education.
A much-better educated and trained workforce is a true win-win, resulting in business owners and employees both earning more money. Legislators on both sides of the aisle in the state house should be able to find common ground on these issues.