Robert Winglass: Faulty job numbers distract from economy in recovery

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Figures used by the governor’s critics claim job gains and losses that never actually occurred.

In his Feb. 12 opinion piece, columnist Doug Rooks made reference to questionable jobs numbers used by Democrats to try and make a case that Maine lost jobs at a rapid pace last year. Not only is the information incorrect, the scare tactics of the governor’s critics are only undermining his efforts to put our economy back on track.

Rooks says the source of his facts were “Census Reports,” but they don’t match the numbers captured through their monthly household survey of Maine residents. Preliminary estimates of employment in 2011 indicate that resident employment grew by 3,000 between January and December 2011.

The more likely origin of the jobs information cited were the volatile nonfarm jobs estimates produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For January 2011, the measure showed that Maine had the largest-ever recorded monthly gain in nonfarm jobs (7,300.) Typically, however, January is a month in which employers shed jobs in the aftermath of seasonal hiring that occurs before the holiday.

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The estimates raised eyebrows when they were released early last year, and we now know, based on actual payroll data from all Maine businesses, that the surge never actually occurred. As expected, the supposed gains eroded during several subsequent months of surveys and, by December 2011, the nonfarm job estimates were basically back where they started at the beginning of the year.

The bottom line is that the numbers used by Rooks and the governor’s other critics claim job gains and losses that never actually occurred. The year-end numbers, expected later this month, will likely show job gains in the private sector that will be offset by shrinkage in government jobs due primarily to reductions in the size of the state work force.

We have plenty of evidence of improvement in the private sector. During the past year, dozens of businesses pledged investments in Maine, totaling $100 million, with plans to create more than 1,000 new, good-paying jobs. We celebrated the restarting of Great Northern Paper in Millinocket and welcomed a new employer, Carbonite, and the more than 100 jobs it brought to the state from overseas.

The new year has brought more welcome news of 125 new jobs at Legacy Publishing in Westbrook and the launch of a new line of boats at Hinckley Yacht in Trenton that will provide jobs for 90 skilled production workers.

During the past year, the governor has made significant progress on the state’s finances through policies targeting unfunded liabilities in the pension system and addressing unsustainable growth in welfare programs. Regulatory reforms and initiatives aimed at cutting energy prices are lowering the cost of doing business in Maine and making our state a more competitive place for employers seeking to expand or relocate.

But, as our economy continues to recover, there are still challenges that must be overcome before every Mainer is back to work. Many of the jobs that were lost during the recession were concentrated in industries and occupations that had a very different set of skills than the sectors of the economy that are growing today and are expected to add jobs in the future.

Workers who are having the most difficult time in the economy today often lack the training or experience needed to be competitive in current and future job markets. So while there are more than 3,000 jobs currently posted on Maine’s Job Bank, many of the employers that are hiring report that they can’t find workers with the skills that they need for the positions they are trying to fill.

Maine spends more than $20 million in state and federal training each year to help adult workers who are unemployed and underemployed in the job market. Historically, however, too small a share of that money has gone to providing actual job skills, and training priorities haven’t always been aligned with the work force needs of employers with jobs to fill.

Maine workers deserve better.

Last month, Gov. LePage proposed a series of reforms designed to make Maine’s work force system more effective and accountable to the people it serves. High on the list is ensuring that a greater share of training funds actually support job skill training.

The governor has charged a new State Workforce Investment Board with carrying out this new policy and implementing new performance-based standards to evaluate performance of work force programs in terms of return on investment for taxpayers, participants and employers.

Much to the chagrin of the governor’s critics, Maine’s economy is starting to build momentum. The governor’s efforts to put the state’s fiscal house in order and lower the cost of doing business in Maine are helping create a climate where job creators can succeed and add jobs.

Customized job training in demand occupations represents the final link that will help Maine workers prepare for the jobs that are inevitably in store moving forward.

Robert Winglass is commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.

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