Finding a Path Forward
Business leaders reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing Maine's improving economy
Maine’s economy has fully recovered from the lows of the Great Recession, but workforce challenges and the geographic disparity of the rebound have business leaders looking for solutions. On the positive side, the state set a new record for private sector employment last year and had its lowest unemployment rate in 40 years. However, the financial experts we spoke with say that despite the recovery, growing and improving the state’s workforce and supporting rural communities are crucial to moving the economy forward.
“The overall economy of Maine has finally recovered, but it’s been a long, slow march back from the Great Recession,” says Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation. Breen, whose organization releases an annual report tracking the state’s growth, says Maine has seen an incredibly tight labor market over the last five years, partly due to its flat population growth. Having a workforce that is the right size with the right skills is the economy’s top need and challenge, he says. This challenge is compounded by the mismatch between what employers need with the skills and the location of available workers, especially in rural Maine. The keys are attracting more people to the state, including immigrants, and increasing the number of people with postsecondary degrees or industry-relevant certificates. The Maine Development Foundation is one of a handful of organizations working toward of a goal of increasing the percentage of the workforce with postsecondary credentials from around 40 percent to 60 percent by 2025. “A business is not going to expand their operation in Maine or move their operation to Maine if they don’t think they can get that skilled workforce over a long term,” Breen says.
Bill Williamson, Maine state president at Bank of America, agrees that developing Maine’s workforce is the most important issue facing the state’s economy. He applauds the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Maine Development Foundation, and Educate Maine’s collaboration to address our workforce development challenges. “The great thing about this state is there’s a great spirit and a great heart and people really want to help, but it’s also about pulling it together, so we can develop a coordinated statewide approach,” he says. Along with workforce development, Williamson says more work is needed to revive the economy in rural parts of the state, particularly in regions that had relied on the forestry industry or manufacturing. Williamson points to the recent Inc. magazine listing of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the country. Of the twelve companies from Maine, the farthest one north is in Brunswick, and eight are based in Portland. “You can lose sight of what’s going on statewide if you’re just paying attention to Greater Portland and southern Maine,” he says. As the largest supporter of community development financial institutions in the country, the bank provides funding through organizations like Coastal Enterprises, Inc., in Maine to companies in rural communities.
Larry Wold, Maine state president at TD Bank, also cites labor force constraints and the struggles of Maine’s forestry industry as challenges for the state. However, he remains optimistic about the overall direction of the state’s economy. “We certainly have our share of challenges in Maine, but there are plenty of people out there who come to see those as opportunities,” Wold says. “As long as we continue to have that, I think our economy will continue to do just fine.” For example, some communities have seen the redevelopment of former mill buildings into space for manufacturers, breweries, distilleries, incubators, and other businesses, he says. “That adaptive reuse is, I think, indicative of the spirit that keeps our economy going—that optimism, that desire to do something you find incredibly fulfilling and rewarding,” Wold says. “To be willing to take on the risk and strike out on your own is really what’s fueled our economy for hundreds of years.”