LEWISTON — Michelle Short had been looking for a job for two years.
She had a full work history, including a decade in Lewiston-Auburn shoe mills and time in construction.
It didn't help.
Thinking training and a career change might land her a job, she went to school and trained to become a certified nursing assistant.
But that didn't help.
She was enthusiastic and persistent, canvassing industrial parks, signing up with temp agencies and networking among friends.
That didn't help, either.
No matter where Short looked or how hard she tried, the 40-year-old from Lewiston just couldn't find a job.
"Nobody was hiring," she said.
After two years of downward trends, state and local job numbers are starting to perk up. Experts say they're seeing more development, more business expansions, more companies moving from temporary workers to permanent ones in nearly every industry and across all pay levels.
Local officials are getting more inquiries from businesses that want to move into town. In fact, on Tuesday, local and state leaders will make an announcement about a "significant" new technology business coming to Lewiston.
Overall, the changes haven't been extreme, but they're there.
"It's strengthening again," said Roland Miller, Auburn's economic development director. "There's new hires that are being talked about virtually across the board for the companies that I'm working with."
For Short and other unemployed people, that's meant one thing: jobs.
After two years on the hunt, Short is working for Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters, a Lewiston-based, private-label shoe manufacturer that has hired more than 30 workers since fall. Short started last Monday.
"Thank goodness I have a job today," she said.
Although economists say America's recession officially began in December 2007, Maine didn't begin seeing its effects until late 2008. The housing market stalled. Construction halted. Banks began tightening their lending practices.
And jobs began to disappear.
Companies stopped hiring. Some cut employees' hours or laid off workers. Some closed altogether. In May 2008, nearly 12,800 Mainers were on their first 26 weeks of unemployment. In May 2009 that number had doubled, to 25,400.
For families like Short's, the economy's effects were very real. She began working at 16, first in local shoe factories and then in construction. When she married, her husband made enough as a roofer to support the family while she stayed home. But when the economy started to turn bad, his hours dwindled and Short started looking for a job to make up the difference.
"Under-the-table jobs I could have probably gotten, but I was trying to look for something real, a steady paycheck and benefits," Short said.
Experts believe Maine's job market hit bottom in 2009. Maine Department of Labor figures show every county in Maine lost jobs — about 30,000 in all — during that time.
"In a matter of months, we lost basically eight years of job gains," said Adam Fisher, spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor.
Between 2008 and 2009, Oxford County lost the highest percentage of jobs, 5.2 percent. Androscoggin County lost 3.9 percent and Franklin County lost 3 percent.
But between 2009 and 2010, those figures changed for the better. Five of Maine's 16 counties — including Androscoggin — held steady or slightly gained jobs. The counties that lost jobs lost fewer of them. Franklin County's loss was 2.2 percent. Oxford County's was 0.7 percent.
"We've seen a great decline in the number of large-scale plant closings and mass layoffs," Fisher said.
Although the percentage of out-of-work Mainers who have exhausted their regular unemployment has remained high — 47.1 percent — it's down 1 percent from a year ago, the first downward tick in those numbers since the recession hit Maine.
Maine Department of Labor statistics show job postings were up in March, hitting about 20,000 after dipping below 15,000 in 2009. Another measure shows private-sector workers are getting slightly more hours at their jobs — typically a precursor to hiring.
The Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission is predicting slow but steady job growth over the next year, with the number of non-farm jobs going over 600,000 for the first time since 2009. Although the Department of Labor's 2011 month-to-month job estimates have seen fluctuations — largely because the methodology has changed — officials believe Maine is on track to make the commission's prediction a reality.
"We think the trend is upward," Fisher said.
Locally, the signs are good, too.
Signs of a turnaround
Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to Lewiston's city administrator, can rattle off the names of more than a half-dozen business that are moving into Lewiston-Auburn, expanding or adding employees — including the Lisbon Community Federal Credit Union, which is adding a location on Sabattus Street in Lewiston; Compounding Solutions, a Lewiston plastics manufacturer that is building a 28,000-square-foot, $3 million addition and will add 10 to 20 employees; and Argo Marketing, a firm that moved from Auburn to Lewiston and has plans to grow.
"It really followed the national trend," Jeffers said. "Everybody was very nervous. People were nervous about ... everything. So they weren't hiring; they weren't investing in new equipment, necessarily. So I think there was a hold-your-breath mentality. All of a sudden, the dust has cleared, and we're still standing and feeling pretty good."
It's a trend the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce has seen, as well. A spring survey of 200 members showed that roughly 40 percent expect their businesses will stay the same in the near future. Of the remaining 60 percent, the vast majority are looking to expand or hire, rather than scale back
"I think people are, on balance, more optimistic than they were a year ago," said chamber President Chip Morrison.
On Tuesday, the chamber and Gov. Paul LePage are expected to announce that a technology company is moving to Maine and setting up shop in Lewiston. Although no details have been released, those connected to the project call it "significant" and say it will bring "very good jobs" to the area.
The Great Falls Insurance Company in Auburn — the first new, Maine-based property and casualty insurance company to open in the state in 18 years — is banking on more jobs across Maine. Opened in January, the company has four employees and would ultimately like to have 40 or 50. Its focus is workers' comp insurance, which meant its founders had to believe Maine's job numbers would bounce back. The fewer workers there are in Maine, the less need there is for workers' comp insurance.
"We very much feel we're coming in at the right point in the market to take advantage of an improving economy," said President and CEO Gary Hall, a new employee himself. He started with the company last Monday. "Who knows if we're correct, but we'd like to think the worst is behind us."
In the Bates Mill in Lewiston, the Baxter Brewing Co. recently opened for business. It began with three employees in November, when it opened its retail shop and its brewing equipment arrived. By the time the micro craft brewery began shipping in January, it had six employees. Today, it has nine.
The brewery has done better — faster — than founder Luke Livingston dreamed it would. Less than six months after shipping its first beer, Baxter Brewing is planning to double its production, give its part-time employees something closer to full-time hours and, if all goes well, hire more people.
"The labor force was anticipated, just not quite this quickly," he said.
Rancourt & Co. has been around a little longer, but is also experiencing faster-than-anticipated growth. Over a decade ago, Mike Rancourt sold his family shoe company to Allen Edmonds, its biggest client. In 2009, as the shoe business faltered, Rancourt bought it back. Renamed Rancourt & Co., it started with 20 employees.
Last fall, as business began to pick up, the company started hiring. And hiring. And hiring.
It now has 52 employees, more than twice what it started with. When he was drawing up his business plan, Rancourt didn't expect to need that many employees for three years.
"The growth has been phenomenal," said Rancourt, who credits the business's success, in part, to the fact that its shoes are handmade by American workers.
But while many people are pleased with the current job market, not everyone is.
Rick Holden is a managing partner for the Maine Staffing Group, a blue-collar staffing agency that has six offices throughout Maine, including one in Lewiston. Demand for his temporary workers has been strong, he said, but the businesses he works with still don't want to commit to permanent employees.
"Their need is not real long-term yet, and I'm not sure that even when it gets to be longer, that they're necessarily going to hire people on a full-time basis as readily as before," Holden said.
He still sees empty shopping centers, a lag in construction and a lack of new investment by chain stores. He believes the job market — and, by extension, the economy — may be getting slightly better, but it's getting better slowly. Too slowly.
"It's like sitting on your front porch watching the grass grow," he said. "I mean, by the end of the week it's grown a bit, but it's awfully hard to see it moving."
He believes the LePage administration in Augusta is trying to make life easier for businesses, an effort that he sees translating into jobs. But he's not so confident about the federal government's job efforts.
"The economy will slowly come back," Holden said. "It's a whole combination of things, but I think the biggest thing is that people still don't have a lot of confidence, long-term confidence, yet."
But another agency, the Bonney Staffing Center, disagrees. It says it's seeing a greater demand for both temporary and permanent workers, a sign businesses are more confident about the economy and their future. This spring, its Lewiston branch advertised 30 to 40 openings a week, numbers it hasn't gotten in a while. It's also seen a jump in industrial clients — including those in manufacturing and housing — looking for workers.
"We've been very happy with that increase, and it does bode well for the area," said Lewiston Branch Manager Kelly Jaeger.
The Lewiston CareerCenter also has seen an increase in job postings, and some of its long-unemployed workers finding jobs. One man who recently finished a training program got multiple job offers, something that was virtually unheard of a year ago.
"Attitudes seem to be better among job-seekers, and businesses," said Mary LaFontaine, Lewiston CareerCenter manager. "On a day-to-day basis, I see job-seekers seeming to be a little bit more optimistic because I thinking they're seeing a higher number of job postings."
Short was one of three new people to start at Rancourt & Co. in the past week, and she was more than happy to put her long job search behind her. Working in the pre-fit department, she loves her boss, loves the quality of the work, loves that she's working on a wholly Maine-made product. Loves the fact that she has a job.
"This is a really good company and I'm really, really impressed," she said. "They're just so dedicated to keeping us workers working."
Some businesses moving into Lewiston-Auburn, expanding or adding employees:
Baxter Brewing Co.
Buffalo Wild Wings
Great Falls Insurance Co.
Lifestyles Massage Inc.
Lisbon Community Federal Credit Union
Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters
VA outpatient clinic