AUGUSTA — The Central Maine Business Breakfast on building workforce in central Maine brought about two dozen people to the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine at the University of Maine in Augusta on Wednesday morning to talk about how find and keep workers at a time of historically low unemployment.

Amy Tardiff, vice president and general counsel for J.S. McCarthy Printing; Craig Larrabee, president and chief executive officer of JMG (Jobs for Maine Graduates); and Jennifer Riggs, chief nursing officer at MaineGeneral Medical Center and chief executive officer of MaineGeneral Community Care, served as the panel of experts.

Here are the highlights:

• Offering a pathway to progress through a company can help keep employees engaged.

“The health-care segment of the workforce is one of the largest growing,” Riggs said. “So the projection of the number of health-care workers needed in the future is crazy.”

Different approaches are needed for different job types. Entry level positions require creating some excitement around getting into a health-care system where it’s possible to start at an entry level position but grow professionally at your own pace and receive support along the way.

“We have had to be creative around supporting that for our employees that would not be able to take time off to go to school because they have a family,” Riggs said. “So we’ve created our own certified nurse’s aide programs and medical assistant programs where people can have a job, work, and bring home a paycheck while they’re going to school. That’s really helped us get people in the door.”

• Training managers is important.

“What we’ve done for years is taken the best production employee from the department and they’ve worked their way up to managing the team,” Tardiff said. “And while they were very strong at, you know, operating the machine, they’ve got a keen eye, they’re good problem solvers. They can’t, and I shouldn’t say they can’t, but they’re not strongest in leading a team of people. And I think we see that in the way the department engages with them.”

Training managers now focuses on leadership, collaboration and accountability — skills that are not necessarily learned in school or on the job. And that kind of training comes from coaches and trainers. The company also works to promote a rapport among its teams.

“We’ve seen some managers really, really take what we’ve presented at trainings and bring it back to the plant with a lot of enthusiasm and some really good initiatives that come out of it,” Tardiff said.

• Workplace culture is important for retaining workers, and coaching and mentoring are critical.

Years ago, Riggs said, the Human Resources department was responsible for hiring and retaining workers, and making sure that the hospital was paying enough.

“Now our philosophy is we definitely have to be competitive with wages or benefits, but in order to retain, we have to have a superior workplace culture,” she said. “And that falls to every single supervisor, whether you have 200 people or one person, it really has to be your focus in engagement of your staff.”

• Understand that workers will change jobs.

Larrabee said many high school students have no idea what they want to do, and once they get in the workforce, they try several things before settling on something.

“I think what we’re trying to do is from an awareness and exposure standpoint, get young people thinking at an earlier age, not just about going onto higher education, but what is the career that they’re looking for?” he said. “You can go into the health world and thinking you want to be one thing and once you start getting exposed to what other opportunities exist, that might change your course a little bit.”

• In the coming years, getting and keeping employees in central Maine and across the state will be a tough job.

“I will say that this workforce crisis is not going to get any better in the next five years. It’s actually going to get worse,” Larrabee said. “The cost of business in Maine, it’s going to go up because those businesses that understand the importance of culture and are willing to invest in culture to recruit and retain all those are the ones that are going to continue to be hopefully robust.”

Riggs said Maine has a projected nursing shortage of 3,200 nurses by the year 2025.

“A lot of it is understanding what is at the root of the shortage. It’s different for entry level than it is for skilled nurses,” she said. “There’s actually a large interest  in the state for people that want to go into nursing. But we don’t have enough faculty currently to open up the pipelines enough to get them into the program. So most of the nursing programs in the state have wait lists. So we’re turning people away.”

Getting more people interested in being faculty means finding a way to support interest in it and paying appropriately. Nurses master’s or doctorate degrees can make more in a hospital than in a classroom.

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