Lawmakers, governor, target Maine skills gap

Glenn Adams, Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- While Gov. Paul LePage joined business leaders Monday to launch a campaign to interest more Maine students in manufacturing jobs going begging in the state, a newly formed legislative committee was getting the rest of the story: More than 400,000 Mainers will reach retirement age during the next two decades, creating a demand for what an economist called a quality workforce.

Jobs were the theme of the day at the State House, where the governor joined the Manufacturers Association of Maine along with business leaders and some students to launch a statewide marketing campaign to draw young Mainers to manufacturing jobs, many of them high tech, that employers are having trouble filling.

One reason is that students aren't getting the word, LePage said, because schools are too focused on directing students to college and are not telling them about opportunities in business.

"Our schools have been in denial of what's going on out there," LePage said.

The LePage administration says the state's manufacturing sector employs nearly 51,000 people with average annual salaries of $50,000. More than half of all manufacturing careers in Maine are considered high-tech jobs, but many go unfilled because applicants lack the necessary skills.

That's the case at Mathews Brothers window manufacturer in Belfast, which needs people with the skills and aptitude to run sophisticated machinery.

"We're coming up with a talent gap," the company's director of marketing and international sales, Bob Maynes, said during a news conference to announce the new outreach effort.

And in northern Maine, there's a growing need for workers in woods-related industries, said Alexandra Ritchie, managing director of government and community relations for Cate Street Capital, parent company of Great Northern Paper.

The Millinocket mill, which is branching out with a new torrefied wood product to be used in coal-fired power plants in Europe to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, employs 257 workers. But many of those skilled workers are aging and will need to be replaced.

"We must be thinking a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now," said Ritchie.

Maine's workforce is indeed aging, economist Charles Colgan of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine told legislators Monday.

During the next decade, 187,000 people in the state will become eligible for retirement, and in the following decade 218,000 more will become retirement aged, Colgan said. While many will likely hang onto their jobs into traditional retirement years, all will gradually leave the workplace, he said.

With fewer people joining the workforce during the next two decades, the number of workers will shrink by 50,000-60,000 people, creating a need to recruit from out of state, Colgan told the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future.

"The bottom line is that for our long-term competitiveness, we're not going to be able to compete as we once did on the quantity of our workforce, and so we will have to compete on the quality of our workforce. It will be the only thing that we will have to work with in an internationally competitive market," Colgan said.

The committee, meeting for the first time Monday, was created by the Democratic legislative leaders and is being asked to produce legislation to address the so-called "skills gap" and create a better atmosphere for business to thrive. The committee cites a study that says between now and 2018, about 4,000 jobs in Maine will go unfilled because workers lack the skills to fill them.

LePage, a Republican, said he supports the work of the committee.