WATERVILLE — Commissioner Heather Johnson of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development shared details Thursday of the state’s ambitious, 10-year strategic economic plan at the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce’s Business Breakfast at Thomas College.

Heather Johnson Photo by Michele Stapleton

“When I started talking about this with then Gov.-elect Janet Mills, I looked around for the state’s economic plan and it became clear that there wasn’t one,” said Johnson, a Skowhegan native and University of Maine graduate.

“And so then we started looking back and there were lots of specific things, but no comprehensive look at how we move forward as a state … so we spent about the last nine months developing this plan.”

The plan’s goals over the next decade include increasing the average annual salary by 10%, boosting the value of products sold per worker by 10% and recruiting 75,000 people to the workforce.

The plan, unveiled Dec. 11, has seven strategies that will help achieve these goals: Increasing the talent pool in Maine, attracting new talent to the state, promoting innovation, improving connectivity, bolstering infrastructure, maintaining stable business environments and promoting hubs of excellence.

The plan has been written from different perspectives, one being the way students and adult learners are introduced to their options within the workforce.

“You have to look at it in a lot of different ways, and we have a lot of opportunities to change the discussion we have with our students,” Johnson said. “What students told us is that someone has told them they either have to do a four-year degree or trade school. There aren’t really any other choices.

“But the reality is there are a lot of choices. There’s a lot of choices for adult learners who want to make changes or for people who want to think about a different career.”

Johnson said it is important to start early with students — as early as kindergarten — to teach them workforce skills.

“What I will say about the plan: It’s a good road map for us all to work from,” she said. “It’s in some cases very aspirational.

“If you go into some of our poor rural school systems, a really high percentage of kids will tell you they’re not going to graduate from high school because there’s no place for them. They can’t see themselves reflected in our economy, and that’s heartbreaking.”

Over the course of the plan’s development, Johnson sought the input of 1,300 Mainers across the state.

“I think if you go to other states,” Johnson said, “you don’t have that same level of engagement, and people really having the best interest of the state at heart.”

In central Maine, economic development is focused on a few specific areas, according to Kimberly Lindlof, president and CEO of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce.

“I participated in all the public sessions in our region, and some of the areas we’re looking at is increasing the skilled workforce, both in numbers and the training up of the skills the workforce has,” said Lindlof, who attended the breakfast.

“Child care is a huge concern for our region. That’s where I put my focus when we did breakout sessions.”

Johnson shared similar sentiments about the importance of improving child care.

“On occasion, I’ll get someone asking: ‘Well, why do you care about child care? You are economic development,'” Johnson said. “But we just got a call two weeks ago from a company in Aroostook County that was having to close for three weeks because a local child care closed, and that affected their employees so much that they couldn’t operate. So we need to be supportive. These pieces are all so intertwined.”

Lindlof said the colleges in the region provide central Maine an advantage in attracting economic growth.

“We’re blessed in this region to have four major colleges: Colby, Thomas, Unity and KVCC,” Lindlof said. “We’re trying to think big and define this area as one of educational excellence. It helps so much with business and workforce attraction if we can define our region as one of educational excellence.”

The chamber’s next Business Breakfast — “Waterville Reignited” — is scheduled for Feb. 6 and expected to feature a presentation by Paul Ureneck, director of commercial real estate for Colby College.


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