Maine needs people. Evidence is everywhere: “Help wanted!” “Join our team!” “Signing bonus!” In September, unemployment fell below 3 percent. Businesses unable to attract workers are closing even as wages at all pay levels have been rising. Deaths in Maine (and in all but two of its counties) exceed births. Maine is the oldest state in the nation and, but for international migration, our population would be declining.

But to attract the people it needs, Maine needs not just jobs, but also well-marked and readily accessible career pathways. Filling job vacancies in Maine is not just a labor market problem: i.e., finding better ways to connect job seekers with employers. It is a community investment problem. Migrating to Maine to fill a job opening is more than just showing up for work. It is making a life-altering family investment to move and start anew. Recognizing this fact, Maine employers must say not just, “here’s your job for today,” but “and here’s how you can make it a career for your future.” Similarly, Maine communities must make the reciprocal community investments in housing, transportation, education, safety and recreation necessary to welcome these needed migrants.

To illustrate this distinction between recruiting for a job and investing for a community, consider the example of Colby College in Waterville. Its recent initiatives offer insights for solving Maine’s “people problem.” Colby isn’t unique. It doesn’t offer “the” answer to our people problem. But its efforts in a once-prosperous mill town that is the economic center of a region struggling to move past the deindustrialization of the past 30 years provide examples that could help in other areas of Maine.

Colby draws both its faculty and its students from across the world. Over the past four years, employment at Colby has grown by 20 percent, making it the second largest private employer in Kennebec and Somerset counties. In its most recent academic year, Colby hired 122 new faculty and staff: 61 from outside Maine, and 33 from outside the two-county region. The average salary of these new hires exceeded the average salary of all employees in Maine by 44 percent and of all employees in Kennebec and Somerset counties by 53 percent. The average age of Colby’s new hires was six years younger than the average of all Maine workers and eight years younger than the average of workers in the two-county region – clearly a direct hit on Maine’s people problem.

More illustrative is the investment that accompanied this recruiting. Over the past five years, Colby has spent $176 million upgrading its facilities and equipment. This includes $143 million on campus and $33 million in downtown Waterville. When work that is underway and that is being planned is complete, Colby’s investments in Waterville will total over $75 million, and this commitment is helping spur non-Colby investments in the city.

Colby recognizes that its future depends on recruiting the faculty, staff and students it needs to fulfill its academic goals. Success requires having both an attractive academic institution and an attractive community – not merely a place where recruits will want to work, but also a place where their families will want to settle and build lives.

Colby is not alone in facilitating an enormous investment in Maine’s human capital. Similar statistics could be gathered for other institutions of higher education in Maine, and for Maine’s scientific research, development and consulting institutions, all of which share the same need for well-educated, highly motivated workers to reach their enterprise goals.

Maine is on the threshold of a new, research-driven era of economic prosperity. We already have much that is attractive to a broad cross section of people across the globe. To secure the future that could be ours, we must find ways to match employer investment in human capital with the equally necessary community investments in public social capital.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.