In 2009, Vaughan Woodruff returned to his hometown of Pittsfield with his young family and an uncertain future.

It was the height of the housing crisis, and he moved his family and his business back to Maine to give his stepsons a strong foundation of community and family. Whether the company would be able to make it in central Maine was a secondary concern.

His company was a one-man show specializing in solar energy and energy efficiency contracting. Woodruff has degrees in engineering and education, moved into his grandparents’ old home, and was confident that his family would be able to make ends meet even if his company wasn’t successful.

Over the next decade, Woodruff’s business — Insource Renewables — did more than make ends meet. The company grew to become one of the most recognized solar companies in Maine and began creating technical careers for local workers wanting to stay in central Maine.

Now Insource Renewables has taken a major step forward in rooting itself ever more deeply as a growing source of well-paying jobs for young, skilled workers in central Maine. Recently, we employees bought the company from Vaughan, and now all of us — including Vaughan — own the company together as a worker cooperative.

We already enjoyed a collaborative company culture, but now all of us have an opportunity to be co-owners, participate in the decision-making and growth strategy of the company, and earn a share of the profits.

Our stories are like so many other young people who’ve grown up in rural Maine. We loved our way of life, the peace and quiet of the outdoors, our family and friends, and the pace and culture of rural living. But each of us also understood that lack of economic opportunity would make earning a decent living difficult, if not impossible.

That’s why we’re so excited by what we’re creating. Keeping young workers close to home has been a recurring theme of Insource’s growth in the past, and now it is part of our mission for the future. Some of us left and came back, and some us never left, but we’re all here now. We’ve each pursued skills and education, and we’re working together to build a company focused on the technologies of the future to put ourselves to work and create more skilled, good-paying jobs.

Insource’s conversion to worker ownership is coming at an opportune time. Demand for solar across the world, and here in Maine, is increasing due to rising energy costs, decreasing costs of solar and the imminent threat of global warming. As cooperative owners, we’re working together to build a company that is sustainable for us, our bottom line, our community and our planet.

As a worker cooperative in a burgeoning Maine industry, Insource Renewables is demonstrating a new path forward for local economic development through investment in its people. Hopefully, the work we’ve done with Insource will be a model for preserving and growing rural businesses and creating more and better jobs.

That is why we’re big supporters of L.D. 1520, An Act to Create and Sustain Jobs through Development of Cooperatives and Employee-owned Businesses. This bill will promote and incentivize more businesses and workers to follow the example we’ve set, and support the technical assistance needed to pursue a transition to employee ownership.

As we look around our communities, we see firsthand the impact of being the oldest state in the nation. Most of the business owners are older, and many of our young friends have moved to southern Maine or out of state for greater opportunities. As a result, most of those businesses struggle to find workers. Supporting those business owners’ ability to retire and creating an opportunity for the next generation to take over those businesses would meaningfully address this challenge and strengthen our rural communities and expand economic opportunity here.

Rural Maine is used to struggle, but it shouldn’t be this difficult. L.D. 1520 would be an innovative but practical step in promoting hope and opportunity for young workers who want to stay in their hometown. In our hyper-polarized political climate, it is notable that L.D. 1520 is sponsored by a broad cross section of Democrats and Republicans from both rural and urban areas. It also honors the commitment Gov. Janet Mills made on the campaign trail to expand support for businesses to transition to employee ownership.

Insource Renewables is just one business and we don’t pretend to think that we alone are going to change rural Maine’s economy. But we do believe that the cooperative ownership model we’ve pursued and the opportunities it will afford us, if widely pursued by more businesses, would. And that’s why we are encouraging legislators support L.D. 1520.

 

This column was submitted by the worker-owners of Insource Renewables. Insource Renewables is now a worker-owned renewable energy design and installation company based in Pittsfield. 


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