AUGUSTA — George Gervais may not always be pleased with media reports about Maine’s business climate.
As commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, Gervais watches the national business press consistently rank Maine low in business-climate terms.
But every now and then, something crosses Gervais’ desk that makes him smile, he said Friday.
That was the case last September when a young entrepreneur — Kyle Murdock, in St. George, Maine — credited the DECD with helping him launch a lobster-processing plant that ended up filling a much needed gap in state’s iconic and valuable lobster industry while at the same time creating local jobs.
“They were extremely helpful,” Murdock told the Bangor Daily News. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
“That’s one of our major areas of focus,” Gervais said Monday. “What can we do in state government to gain access to the entrepreneurs and the job creators in the state of Maine and get commentary like that out of them?”
Working to grow jobs and the economy have been a top agenda items for LePage’s administration.
And while LePage enjoyed the support of Republican-controlled Legislature during his first two years as governor, he faces a new Democratic majority as a new session of the state Legislature gets under way this week.
But even as LePage was swearing in a slate of Democrats to the state’s constitutional offices Monday — his top cabinet officials, including commissioners like Gervais, seemed upbeat and optimistic the last two years of LePage’s first term would be productive.
At DECD they would continue to work toward success stories like Murdock’s, Gervais said.
One bill looks to address the so-called “skills gap” — a problem many employers, including the state, say they have in finding qualified workers to fill open jobs.
The measure would attempt to lure skilled workers back to Maine with state incentives including partial tuition reimbursements or even mortgage reimbursements, Gervais said.
The law would be temporary and would expire at a point, but at present, Gervais said, funding the measure — as the state wrestles with a $135 million budget gap and owes more than a $500 million to its hospitals in back payments — could be challenging.
The incentives would expire after longer-term efforts to close the gap begin to take effect, Gervais said.
The backdrop, however, is the gaping budget shortfall and a philosophical divide that has the governor at odds with Democrats on everything from school choice to whether the state should issued government-backed bonds for public works projects.
“Of course, we have the small issue of how do we fund this bill,” Gervais said. “Unfortunately, this bill may not go anywhere because of funding but we are certainly going to give it a try.”
While some are dismissive of the skills gap, criticizing business for wanting somebody else to train their employees or for wanting to pay discount wages, Jeanne Paquette, the state’s Labor Commissioner agrees the gap is real.
Paquette, also agrees employers, too need training and education, and her agency is working to become even better at connecting employees with employers.
“The skills gap . . . is a multitude of things,” she said.
“Sometimes you hear companies saying they can’t find people,” Paquette said. “Well, are they paying market rates? Are they competitive? Do they have a high turnover rate? Is it a good place to work? It’s not just we have jobs we can’t find the skills for, it’s more than that.”
She said even the state doesn’t do a very good job at marketing open jobs.
“We can’t find the skills that we need either,” she said. “But that’s because we are not doing a good enough job at letting the people know the jobs are available in the places where those people hang out and where they look.”
That conversation between employers and potential employees needs to continue to improve, she said.
Paquette said she doesn’t worry about working with the incoming Democratic majority on issues so critical to Maine’s economic well-being.
“To me — workforce — is not a left or right issue,” she said. She said she welcomes working with a new committee being set up by the Legislature to address the skills-gap issue. She said she’s looking forward to working, “with whoever is on the third floor . . . ” The Legislature’s chambers are on the third floor of the State House.
“None of us can sit back and say, ‘Well, I’m just going to wait for political posturing,'” Paquette said. “That’s just not going to work for Maine anymore, we are in a crisis as far as getting people back to work, off the systems, having hope and helping to grow Maine — we all have to do it.”