With our new Legislature and governor properly focused on attracting new business to Maine, (and doing a good job in my opinion) let’s turn our attention for a moment to an important and complimentary issue: maintaining and developing a capable work force.
It’s no secret that we are a graying state; we have one of the oldest populations and the second lowest birth rate in the country. This is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Greece. We are at a time now where we need to be actively recruiting not just companies, but people to Maine, in order to at least partially replace the considerable number of able-bodied workers that have left the state.
Companies base their growth or relocation decisions not just on factors such as low utilities, minimal regulatory environment and good site selection. They also consider what the current work force will look like in 10, 20, even 40 years from now.
Moreover, the best chance of creating jobs for the less-employable members of our communities is to increase the level of economic activity, and that is impossible without attracting higher-skilled jobs and labor.
With this in mind, what group of people might we readily attract to Maine who are not tied to any one geographical area? Veterans -- the newly-discharged men and women from the U.S. armed forces. People who are getting out of the military with great training, ample work ethic, high motivation and who struggle with the ‘Where should I go now?’ question. Veterans that have federally funded college funds, VA guaranteed home and business loans waiting to be applied for and spent (hopefully here in Maine) and more importantly want to settle down and raise families and build a life in a safe and beautiful location like Maine.We just have to give them a reason to come here. We need to make it easy to bridge that gap between military service and the life of a civilian. If we do that here in Maine, they are going to be more likely to stay here and feel an obligation to their first post-military home.
People who are leaving the military usually fall into two groups: Young people finishing up a stint of less than 10 years and those who are retiring at around 20 years of service.
When I was a Drill Sergeant I used to ask my newly-recruited Privates what was their main reason for joining the Army. Without fail eight out of ten of them would say “to earn money for college.” But the sad reality is that only a few of them ever would, not because of a lack of college money (VA college funds are substantial) but rather because most military discharge dates don’t neatly coincide with the start of a college semester, hence most have to find a job, place to live and focus on survival, not what text books they need for school.
We have a great community college and university system with housing throughout the state that can be used to house, provide remedial courses and transition services for newly discharged veterans during the summer months when they are empty, and to a limited number during the school year, space permitting. So that when the school year starts they are ready to go and primed for success. Let’s also grant immediate in-state tuition rates, so that it can be paid fully by their VA college fund.
Veterans with families have different needs like family housing. Why can't we leverage unused family housing at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station? That would make a great new "transitional base" where families can focus on transition for a few months, get the support they need before taking their next steps.
Now that we are working at making our business climate more conducive to the entrepreneur, let’s encourage veterans to utilize their VA-guaranteed small- business loan program to start and grow businesses here in the state. We have ample, unused industrial and commercial space that can be designated as veteran entrepreneurial centers, that in combination with existing Pine Tree zones will help new-veteran small businesses grow and hire.
One of the most important initiatives that our Legislature must undertake is to stop taxing military retirement pay. This is a critical step that is needed to attract retirees to this state. And let’s remember that military retirees are usually between 40 and 45 years of age, they want to re-enter the job market, start a new business and raise their families. Taxing retirement income discourages them from coming here, and bringing all they have to offer to our state.
Perhaps the governor could appoint a working group comprised of representatives from all state departments along with representatives from our congressional delegation. This working group could develop, before the next legislative cycle, appropriate legislation and identify needed resources to make this happen. At the federal level, we could propose a military transition program that would help fund this venture. Proper transitioning into civilian life is critical to the future welfare of our veterans and helps fulfill our obligation to those who have served.
Imagine several thousand new Mainers every year, buying homes, starting businesses, adding to our communities and in turn making Maine a vibrant business friendly, family friendly, state for generations to come. When we have bold thoughts, backed by bold leadership, we can accomplish amazing things.