A help wanted sign on Route 1 in Saco. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Overcoming Maine’s labor challenges could take years of hard work and a shotgun approach that requires education and training, recruiting marginalized communities, supporting workforce infrastructure and encouraging immigration.

This isn’t a new challenge. Economic development leaders have warned for years that Maine’s swiftly aging demographic would shrink the workforce and disrupt the economy.

“We have been sounding the alarm for over a decade now that at some point the availability of the labor force would become an active lid on the state’s economic growth,” said Yellow Light Breen, CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, a community development nonprofit.

Yellow Light Breen

Three years ago, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration launched a 10-year economic development plan, the first such state roadmap in two decades. Maine’s workforce was the strategy’s core, with a goal of adding at least 75,000 workers to the state economy by 2029. Themes laid out in the strategy – education, immigration, infrastructure, engaging new workers and providing workers’ with support – are still the backbone of how Maine is recovering and expanding its workforce.

The coronavirus pandemic threw the state economy into disarray and worsened Maine’s labor crisis. People retired early, left jobs to go back to school, went part time to care for family members, or used the opportunity to reassess their lives and pursue dreams of starting their own businesses.


In June, the latest month for which there is data, there were 48,000 open jobs in Maine – more than two positions for every unemployed worker. At the same time, the proportion of Mainers in work or actively looking for a job is at its lowest point in nearly 50 years. There are 21,000 fewer people in the labor force now than there were just before the pandemic.

If the pandemic laid bare Maine’s workforce challenges, it also presented opportunities to address them. For the first time, the state has resources – hundreds of millions in federal relief funding – to jumpstart programs that may bridge longstanding gaps.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Part of finding the solution is understanding what is causing the problem,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

The problems can seem insurmountable. A lack of affordable housing, child care and transportation keeps workers on the sideline. Communities of disengaged people – those in substance abuse recovery, who have a criminal history or a disability – are still dissuaded from taking jobs. Asylum-seekers arriving from parts of sub-Saharan Africa want to contribute but are barred from searching for work for months after arriving in the United States.

In the wake of the pandemic, Connors gets the sense that businesses, nonprofit agencies and state government all recognize cooperation is crucial to creating the workforce Maine needs to thrive.

“Whether it is logging, manufacturing, construction or health care, the industry is taking on training programs to try to attract people, develop career opportunities and provide them a place to work where they can be proud,” he said. “We have moved from ‘What’s happening?’ to understanding the cause and taking action to do the best we can to address the issue.”


With all its challenges, Maine’s labor market presents opportunities too. Intense competition for workers means that some of those ordinarily sidelined, such as disabled and formerly incarcerated people, and those with limited English skills, can play important parts in the economy, said labor commissioner Laura Fortman.

A small population gain over the past two years from a higher birth rate and people moving into the state could help too. And employers may reconsider what qualifications they really want in an employee.

Maine labor commissioner Laura Fortman. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“In the past you may have barriers in place you don’t even realize are barriers,” Fortman said. “Do you need a four-year college degree for the position, or were you using that as a screening measure?”

State government efforts to move Maine’s economic strategy ahead were buoyed by the pandemic, as hundreds of millions of federal relief dollars flooded into the state.

Last year, the Legislature gave bipartisan support to Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery plan, which included nearly $180 million for workforce development programs. It includes money for training, apprenticeships and education, for “navigators” to help jobless Mainers find work, as well as opportunities and funding to attract people from out of state to live and work in Maine.

“I think what has changed is that for the first time there are priorities and projects that are now going to be funded,” said Heather Johnson, the state’s economic and community development commissioner.


The plan also included tens of millions of dollars to improve child care, build affordable housing and boost transportation for workers – key constraints on the workforce that until recently went unrecognized by many.

Breen, from the Maine Development Foundation, was surprised when workforce infrastructure – housing, child care and transportation – emerged as the most pressing issues for employers and workers during the formulation of the economic plan.

“Going into it, those of us with a traditional economic development lens were not thinking those would be in an economic strategy. But from the beginning that is what we heard about in spades,” Breen said.

Joe Qualey, a welder and grinder with Messer Truck Equipment in Westbrook, works on a tailgate being installed on a pickup. The company has had a hard time finding enough workers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A study from Harvard University this spring estimated more than a third of Maine renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a level considered “cost-burdened.” Nearly 1 in 5 tenants spent more than 50 percent on rent, according to the study.

The state’s housing crisis is putting new college students in a bind, forcing tourism employers to invest in workforce housing and has sparked a new state law to encourage new apartment construction.

A lack of affordable child care has also taken a toll on the state’s workforce. A 2022 survey from a coalition of child care associations found 64 percent of day care centers had a growing waitlist and 57 percent had staff shortages.


That’s left child care unavailable for some families, a problem compounded by price – $6,500 per year in Aroostook County to $15,756 per year in Cumberland County, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Housing rose to one of the top priorities for employers surveyed for a semiannual Making Maine Work report from the development foundation, chamber of commerce and Educate Maine.

Nearly half those surveyed said the availability of entry-level workers, matched with energy costs, should be the top priority for the next governor. Availability of skilled workers and affordable housing came in a close second.

Businesses and Maine’s community colleges, at least, have spent the last four years addressing skills gaps that hold back employers and workers.

Hunter Wrigley, a second-year student in Southern Maine Community College’s Precision Machining and Manufacturing Lab, prepares a machine to engrave keychains in May. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Since 2018, training centers at Maine’s seven community colleges have been turning out hundreds of workers through short-term programs that last less than a year and give them skills tailored to employer needs. That effort ramped up last year with $60 million in state and philanthropic funding to provide no-cost training across a range of industries.

Addressing workforce gaps means making training accessible for workers and useful for employers, said the college system’s chief workforce development officer, Dan Belyea. Extra funding made it possible to provide free courses for workers. Stronger industry collaboration opened the door to tailoring programs that can produce trained workers within months, compared to the years apprenticeships and college degrees can take.


None of these programs were available 10 years ago – demand for trained workers brought them to life, Belyea added.

“When you offer no-cost training and you connect them with employers … up front, you get a better yield on the other end,” Belyea said. “The days of setting up a training program and hoping students get a position on the other end, those days are long gone.”

In 2018, Maine community colleges turned out about 900 graduates of short-term training programs. Last year, the number of graduates neared 6,300 across industries, from manufacturing to health care.

“We are not the single solution, but the only way we are doing it is through partnerships and collaboration,” Belyea said. “When we collaborate with a business and talk openly about what they need and when they need it, that is when we’re doing things.”

Maine’s workforce won’t bounce back overnight. The challenges confronting the state took years to develop, then were brought into sharp focus during the lifetime-defining global pandemic.

For now, at least, stakeholders are on the same page and committed to overcoming the current gaps, said Johnson, the state’s economic development commissioner. The acute problems – a lack of childcare spaces, not enough training opportunities, available housing – can be surmounted, Johnson said.

But making sure Maine has the workforce it needs will be an ongoing project long after the present labor crunch passes.

“How we support our workforce and help them grow, so that they find careers they are interested in and meet their personal and professional goals, is something we should always be doing,” Johnson said.

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