As Maine ages, policymakers focus on reversing trend

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LEWISTON — A new set of data from the U.S. Census Bureau on 18- to 34-year-olds — known as “millennials” — hold both interesting and concerning details for Maine, the nation’s oldest state.

According to the American Community Survey: 2009-2013, the segment of the U.S.  population that’s made up of 18- to 34-year-olds is shrinking nationwide based on data going back to 1980.

The group is shrinking even faster in Maine.

The age group includes 73 million nationwide and makes up 23 percent of the total population. They made up 30 percent in 1980, according to the survey.

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The data also shows a larger percentage of the age group is living in poverty, and in Maine, like the rest of the country, millennials are marrying less and having fewer children.

Maine millennials are better educated than the same age group from 1980, and more are still living at home with their parents: 26 percent, compared to 20 percent in 1980.

It’s a trend that has massive economic consequences, according to state officials who said finding ways to fill the jobs left open by a rapidly retiring workforce must be a top priority for Maine.

Politicians, both conservative and liberal, agree that the issue is critical for Maine’s economic survival. Whether they agree on how to remedy the situation may be another matter, but most seem to acknowledge that without a huge influx of new, young residents the state will be sunk.

The Maine Department of Labor is focused on the issue and has made future workforce development a top priority, spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said.

The state is taking a multifaceted approach to the issue. That involves finding ways to recruit young people, making it possible for older workers to keep working and getting employers to develop policies that allow them to tap existing but “underutilized labor pools,” such as stay-at-home parents who may want to work part time.

“We need to work on … adapting jobs for workers with disabilities because we have an aging workforce and we will have more workers with disabilities,” Rabinowitz said.

The department also has developed programs that help immigrants who come to Maine with professional skills and credentials, such as doctors and engineers, gain the documentation that allows them to obtain the licenses or permits they need to work in Maine.

Also ongoing are efforts to retool the state’s public school and higher education systems so young people are able to acquire the training and skills they need to fill jobs, Rabinowitz said.

The Department of Labor is working hand in hand with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, which is recruiting specific industries. The Department of Labor is focusing on developing an available workforce with training for new workers and retraining for older workers, Rabinowitz said.

To that end, the state has been successful in pulling down federal grant funding aimed at upgrading worker skills to match the labor market demand.

Policymakers know it takes an abundance of good-paying jobs to trigger an in-migration of young workers, but they also know businesses and industry won’t open shop in a state where they can’t find the skilled workers they need.

Glenn Mills, chief economist at the department’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, said Maine is not alone in grappling with an aging workforce. All of the Northeast faces the same economic scenario, but it is most pronounced in Maine.

Mills said some of the proposals to keep older Mainers working longer are stop-gap measures. “Certainly people are working somewhat longer because the nature of jobs has changed,” he said. “They are less physically demanding, on average.”

But few people work after age 75, he said.

On the bright side, Mills said a steadily improving economy should push wages upward, making the job market in Maine more attractive over time, especially as the demand for labor increases.

Gov. Paul LePage has said key to bringing more good-paying jobs to Maine is lowering the state’s energy costs. His proposals for changing the state’s energy mix likely will meet Democratic resistance.

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the problem could be helped by making Maine a more welcoming place for immigrants.

“People need to understand that even if all the babies that are being born now were to stay in Maine and work when they got older, we still would not have enough people to power a bright economic future for the state,” Rotundo said.

“The immigrants’ work ethic and spirit of entrepreneurship have been the backbone of this state and country’s economic success,” she said. “For proof of that you need to look no further than Lewiston-Auburn and the role the Francos played in this community’s and nation’s success.”

House Speaker Mark Eves, D–North Berwick, has been developing a package of legislation aimed at making sure the growing segment of older Mainers can maintain a high quality of life and keep working if they want to.

Eves said Friday the policy changes he would like to pursue for older Mainers would provide benefits to younger Mainers.

An example, he said, is improving public infrastructure, such as making city parks and sidewalks more accessible to older people with mobility issues and to young families pushing baby strollers. 

Increasing pay for home-care workers under the state’s Medicaid program to improve care for older Mainers also would boost the income of younger Mainers who provide the care, Eves said. 

He said proposals to increase affordable housing for the elderly in Maine would create jobs for young construction workers. “The solutions aren’t just senior-specific,” Eves said.

“We have to make sure we are making Maine a place where young people and families want to come and put roots down and participate in our economy and our workforce,” he said. “We’re going to need them.” 

sthistle@sunjournal.com