When I grew up on Munjoy Hill, before graduating from Cheverus in 1973, Portland was a different city.

As someone who has enjoyed a lifetime career working in the building trades, one difference among many stands out to me.

In 1973, I could stand up on North Street and look out across Portland and see a path for myself, my classmates and friends and many, many others. It was a path to earning my way into the middle class by working as an apprentice in construction. I learned skills I could build a career from and support a family with. I loved building the place where I grew up. It was exciting just to have that chance right here in Portland.

With a new-building boom here in southern Maine, I would expect to see young workers learning new skills and seasoned, highly skilled workers getting good jobs where new development is breaking ground. That’s new development worth tens and tens of millions of dollars. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We’re talking about hundreds of jobs that should be good-paying jobs with health benefits and skills training, with certified safety training and retirement benefits, with take-home pay that adds up to income security for working families.

In short, with this building boom we have a real opportunity to start re-building Maine’s middle class.

That’s not happening.

Instead, we hear developers and general contractors crying about the lack of skilled workers. Karl Ward, CEO of Nickerson & O’Day construction in Brewer, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network recently that he’s about “20 people short right now and I can’t find them … . Skilled construction workers are pretty hard to find.”

Matthew Marks, CEO of Associated General Contractors, chimed in for the 180 members of the trade organization, telling the Portland Press Herald’s J. Craig Anderson that Maine’s skilled construction workers have simply left the state in search of higher-paying jobs elsewhere in New England.

Then he contradicts himself by claiming that “low pay” offered by the group’s member companies did not drive workers away.

I’ll just be blunt about this: Low pay is the main reason why Associated General Contractors’ member companies can’t find the skilled workers they need.

But Ward and Marks aren’t completely wrong. Low pay isn’t the only reason.

Low pay without benefits is another reason why.

Low pay on unsafe construction sites and without Occupational Safety and Health Administration-certified safety training is another reason.

Low pay and the misclassification of skilled workers as “independent contractors” is yet another reason.

Low pay without access to registered apprenticeship programs is the reason why young workers won’t try their hand at learning a construction trade on any job offered by an Associated General Contractors member builder.

And that leads me to the most heartbreaking difference I see between today’s Portland and the Portland where I grew up and worked: Developers and general contractors no longer live up to the partnership they used to value with skilled workers in Maine’s building trades. Once there was a wealth of construction jobs in Maine, and we shared that wealth. That shared partnership built Maine’s middle class.

And if we become partners again, we can rebuild our middle class and give our working families a fair chance.

Because when you stop and think about it, it’s not what we build that’s most important here: our schools and hospitals, new hotels and condominiums and apartments, office buildings and infrastructure.

What’s most important is what we build together: strong, prospering communities, solid working-class families, affordable housing and all of the ties that bind us to the towns and cities in Maine where we live and raise our children and take care of our parents and friends.

There are 4,000 skilled workers in the Maine building trades. We run registered apprenticeship programs to give young workers their first steps toward skills that will last a lifetime. We run OSHA-certified safety training classes because we care if our workers come home for dinner. We offer health care and benefits because construction work is more than a hard day’s work — it takes a toll on a body.

So let’s look at the whole story — the story that Associated General Contractors’ member companies don’t want to tell and that the Portland Press Herald sadly missed.

Let’s build together, and let’s re-build Maine’s middle class. We have that opportunity right now.

John Napolitano of Portland is president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council.


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