Facing a looming demographic disaster, the Pine Tree State must take steps to attract more young people to put down roots, U.S. Sen. Angus King said this week.
“The biggest barrier to Maine’s growth over the next 20 years is people,” the Maine independent said.
One way to help, King said, may be to tap “the river of talent running through” the state’s many colleges.
Instead of standing by watching students flow in and then flow back out again to far-away locales that are seen as offering more opportunity, King said, Maine needs to divert some of them enough to have them notice the option of simply staying.
That students “are only here during the tough time of the year” is a problem, the senator said. “They miss summer.”
What he would like to do, he said, is create an intern program that encourages 1,000 or more out-of-state students to stay in Maine during the summer and experience the sorts of jobs they might someday do for a living.
King, a former governor, said that a program overseen by two or three people could get the colleges and 200 or 300 business to buy in. It wouldn’t cost much, he said, but it would likely get at least some students to remain in Maine for the long haul.
A new report from the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information that predicts a net growth of only 94 jobs in the next decade is one more sign that without a significant increase in migration into Maine, the state’s economy is likely to stagnate.
“We’ve got to bring people in,” King said. “It’s hard to grow jobs if we don’t have people.”
He said the number of students in public education in Maine’s schools is about 25 percent lower than when he was governor two decades go.
Beckie Conrad, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said immigration is also necessary to provide young workers.
King said there are many ways Maine can try to attract more young people, including providing better, faster and cheaper internet connections that are critical for businesses that rely on the web.
The nice thing about the web, he said, is that once it’s in place, Maine companies are “not geographically disadvantaged” from their isolation from commercial centers such as Boston and New York.
“I’ve always thought the internet and our lifestyle was our saving grace,” King said.
Business owners are ramping up the pressure on politicians to do something to help them find the employees they need to flourish.
Laura Rinck, president of Rinck Advertising, told King this week that “when we have to hire, it’s a pretty shallow pool in Maine.”
“It’s a huge issue,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, talks with employees at Rinck Advertising in Lewiston on Wednesday. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)