AUGUSTA — Robin Zinchuk doesn't parse words when she explains the problems facing Maine's economy and the condition of the state's workforce development system.
"We've heard these stories again and again," Zinchuk, the executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, told a select committee of state lawmakers during a hearing Monday. "We've got all these available jobs and no trained workers. Where is the disconnect? I think the current system is broken and we need to fix it."
Zinchuk was among a handful of business and economic development experts to testify before the Legislature's recently formed Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future.
Those testifying represented all parts of Maine, from Portland to Aroostook County.
Almost all said the keys to robust economic and workforce development will include public education reform, closer cooperation with the private sector and a renewed focus on small business support.
Zinchuk suggested important research would include reaching out to existing businesses to identify growth opportunities, "that are currently being stifled due to the lack of trained workers."
Zinchuk echoed concerns previously voiced by Republican Gov. Paul LePage that Maine's public education system puts too heavy an emphasis on trying to get students to attend four-year college programs and not enough emphasis on the advantages of technical training.
She said many businesses don't even realize the state has a system and funding mechanisms in place to help them develop the skilled workers they need.
Despite what happens with the state or federal government, small businesses will continue to be started in Maine, Zinchuk said. But whether they survive and grow or not will be determined by whether they have the support systems, including the workforce, they need.
"Support systems do exist," she said. "It's a matter of connecting the dots."
Zinchuk also urged the Legislature to continue a new program of the LePage administration that's run through the Department of Economic and Community Development.
"As a local chamber executive I think the governor's account executive program is great," Zinchuk said. "It's a great way to link what's going on in Augusta to local businesses." The program has assigned an executive from the DECD to each of the economic development regions around the state. That individual is responsible as a person-to-person contact and is there to help businesses more easily navigate the financial and regulatory obstacles that may be holding them back, Zinchuk said.
Zinchuk also suggested to the panel that the Maine Department of Education should again revisit its Learning Results and consider the addition of entrepreneurial or self-employment skills training to the objectives for students.
"The realities here in Maine, especially in rural Maine, are quite clear. We do not have the job opportunities we once had," Zinchuk said. "We have seen an out-migration of our youth partly due to an educational system that encourages only career aspiration or post-secondary education over a fulfilling life of self-employment."
She said the state policy seems to depend on people from outside of Maine coming in to start up businesses and create jobs. "We seem to be satisfied with allowing Maine youth, who do not aspire or who cannot afford a post-secondary education, to be the worker bees. I think we can do better for the Maine kids."
Zinchuk also suggested lawmakers and other state leaders need to be cognizant of the way they frame their messages and urged them to be hopeful and positive in their approach.
"We oftentimes focus on the big macro challenges and I think there is so much hope in such an incredible state to grow our small business community," Zinchuk said.
At least one lawmaker agreed with her.
"It's funny how you put attitude into a business model but it's true you need to," Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said. "We all need to think about how we approach the economy in the future – it's not so much about the past but it's about the future."
Others who spoke to the committee Monday included:
* Chris Hall, acting executive director, Portland Chamber of Commerce;
* Alan Hinsey, executive director, Many Flags/One Campus Foundation in Cushing; and
* Bob Clark, executive director, Northern Maine Development Commission
On Wednesday, the committee takes its work on the road and will be visiting the Advance Manufacturing Center at the University of Maine, followed by a panel discussion and public hearing at the Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor starting at 2 p.m.