Unemployed Mainers cite lack of jobs fitting their skills as chief hurdle to returning to work

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Sep. 17—A third of unemployed Mainers surveyed said a lack of jobs fitting their skills is the biggest barrier to returning to the workforce.

The survey, released Thursday by the Maine Department of Labor, also found that concerns about COVID-19 risk and a lack of jobs offering sufficient pay, benefits and predictable schedules are making it difficult for the jobless to start working again.

The department conducted the anonymous survey in July and more than 2,600 people — those getting unemployment benefits and active jobseekers — responded. Unemployed Mainers cited more than a dozen barriers to getting back in the workforce, the survey found.

The findings reinforce "the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting Maine people back to work," Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said. The survey indicates that the state needs to "address underlying issues impacting our workforce" as it seeks to help more Mainers return to work, she said.

The state's unemployment rate in July was 4.9 percent, down from 8.8 percent for the same month in 2020, when COVID-related layoffs swept the state and nation.

Other barriers to returning to the workforce were a lack of suitable jobs within a jobseeker's search area and a lack of work supports, such as reliable childcare and transportation.

The responses of 3 in 10 surveyed fell into a catchall category of barriers to re-employment that included age discrimination, difficulty getting an interview in a competitive job market, and challenges for the self-employed because of the pandemic and resulting economic slowdown — fewer clients and sales, and supply chain interruptions.

Matthew Lewis, president and chief executive officer of HospitalityMaine, said employers recognize there are job-seeking hurdles even as his industry struggles to find workers.

"These are challenges that we will need to work together to solve," he said in a statement. "There are currently many opportunities in the hospitality industry, and we are committed to working with state agencies and other employers on creative solutions."

Noel Bonam, state director of AARP Maine, said in a statement that the organization was happy the state conducted the survey. Recognizing that age discrimination is an issue "will serve as a gateway to improve opportunities for Mainers of all ages as they seek employment," Bonam said.

Addressing the barriers identified in the survey will help both job-seekers and employers, said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO.

"The most tried-and-true method to recruit and retain workers is to offer good pay and benefits," Schlobohm said in a statement.

Age discrimination, COVID-related issues, reliable childcare and access to jobs with good pay and benefits are all job-seeking hurdles, he said, and "we must continue working together to address these systemic issues."

The labor department said the state is using federal funds to invest in training and skills-building programs, along with aid for housing, childcare and transportation.

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