Some people are surprised to hear that Maine’s largest industry isn’t fishing, forest products or even tourism. It’s health care.

Nearly one in five Mainers draws a paycheck from a health care job, including people who work for some of the state’s largest employers – our regional medical centers – and some of the smallest – including home health agencies.

One thing they all have in common is difficulty hiring and retaining the staff they need to meet their obligations.

It’s a problem that has been exacerbated by a 19-month pandemic that has demanded more of everyone throughout the system, but workforce challenges were an issue in Maine’s health care sector long before COVID appeared, and they won’t go away if the virus were to suddenly disappear.

On Monday, Gov. Mills rolled out the details of a health care workforce plan that uses federal COVID aid to launch programs designed to help hire, retain and promote a generation of health care workers who will not only fill the gaps that exist today but also replace the thousands of people in health care who are retiring or leaving the field for other reasons.

It’s a complex problem that won’t be fixed with a single remedy. On Monday, Mills explained how her administration was going to put resources behind a number of proposals.

They include:

• $4 million for scholarships and debt relief for students in health care fields.

• $8.5 million to help people in health care jobs to attain higher-level credentials so they can move up in their field.

• $1.5 million to encourage young people to consider health care careers, with $500,000 earmarked for recruiting direct-care service jobs, such as home health aides.

Programs like these will probably be the first steps, if Maine is going to buck the national trends in health care employment. A report released last month by Mercer, a New York-based asset management firm, forecasts millions of vacancies in lower-paid health care jobs in the next five years, including nursing assistants, who are critical to staffing nursing homes.

Mercer also predicts a national shortage of nurses and primary care doctors, which may change the way health care is delivered in the places that don’t meet the workforce challenge.

The national scope of these trends should rebut the notion that the labor shortage in Maine’s health care sector was caused by the Mills administration’s COVID vaccine requirement for health care workers. Retaining the very small number of employees who will give up their jobs because they refuse to be vaccinated would not have any meaningful effect on the employment numbers – not in the short term and certainly not in the long term.

The only way to fill those jobs is to bring more Mainers into the health care professions and to bring more people who want to work in health care to Maine. Mills’ plan moves Maine in the right direction.

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