Promoting Maine talent and innovation

The economy is fickle. It ebbs and flows based on an unlimited number of different moving parts. That change and growth can be good, like when a company has a good quarter and gives all its employees bonuses or when a new product hits the market that changes our lives for the better. It can also be bad, like when a company outsources half its workforce and people lose their jobs, or a recession hits.

The government doesn’t have much control over these ebbs and flows, nor should it, but we do have a responsibility to minimize negative impacts, maximize positive impacts, and above all do what we can to make sure the economy keeps working for the people who live here and participate in it. 

This means responding appropriately when things go bad, but it also means looking at the big picture and planning for the future, so that we don’t get caught flat-footed.

That’s where Maine’s new Economic Development Strategy comes in. It’s a 10-year plan, put together by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and a team of stakeholders representing business, labor, the university and community college systems and various statewide and regional economic development organizations.

There are a few widely recognized challenges that the plan seeks to address. The first, which I touched on in my last column, is that Maine is the oldest state in the union. This means that we have more older Mainers who are leaving the workforce than we have younger Mainers to step up and take their place. Experts predict that, not accounting for people who move here from away, the workforce will shrink almost 10 percent in the next 15 years. 

The second issue is that Maine jobs don’t pay what they used to. Over the last 20 years, Maine payrolls have decreased compared to the national average, making it harder for people to make a living here. 

These two issues feed into the last one, which is that overall economic activity in Maine lags the nation. In the last 10 years, Maine’s economy has grown only 0.6 percent, while nationally the economy has grown 1.8 percent.

So what can we do to address our aging workforce, low wages and sluggish economic growth? The Economic Development Strategy proposes that we focus on growth in two areas: talent and innovation.

This starts with growing talent locally, through investments in early childhood education and by retooling the education system to be responsive to the needs of workers and help them keep up with changes in the job market. 

Another strategy is to attract new talent. The plan sets a goal of adding 75,000 people to Maine’s workforce by finding ways to encourage Mainers who could be participating in the workforce to do so, and boosting programs such as affordable, accessible child care and student loan relief, to make it easier for working age people to live here.

 The plan takes a multi-pronged approach to promoting innovation in Maine. The primary strategy is to expand research and development, startups and international trade. The plan also proposes increasing access to high-speed internet and affordable housing across the state, improving our transportation infrastructure and stabilizing and streamlining the regulatory environment to make it easier to start and grow businesses in Maine.

Finally the plan proposes helping grow regional economies to become “hubs of excellence,” allowing local communities to take control of their economic future.

To learn more about these proposals, read the full Economic Development Strategy online at: maine.gov. It’s an interesting look at a possible path forward for Maine’s economy.

As always, if you have any questions, comments or concerns, feel free to reach my office at 207-287-1515 or send me an email at James.Dill@legislature.maine.gov. I work for you, and you have a right to hold me accountable.

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