Our shrinking workforce will be growing problem


It’s hard to think about a labor shortage at a time of high unemployment, but a variety of forward-thinking people are doing just that.

And while it’s good to cut taxes to create a more business-friendly climate in the state, we will find it harder and harder to do so as our population ages and our workforce shrinks.

Eventually, businesses seeking to start or locate here may find it impossible to find the qualified young workers they need.

State Economist Michael LeVert touched on the problem in an address to the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce last week.

LeVert manages the Economics and Demographics Team at the State Planning Office in Augusta, and it’s his job to suggest the strategies that will help Maine climb out of this recession and position itself for future growth.

Among the state’s weaknesses, according to LeVert, are an inability to attract and retain young people, the inefficiency of government and the high cost of doing business.

Population growth and economic growth are intertwined, he said.

“Maine is not well positioned to benefit from natural population growth. We have the oldest population in the U.S. and we have a low birth rate.”

What’s more, Census estimates show that 2,000 more people left Maine than moved in last year, so our population is actually shrinking.

“So, in 10 years, a quarter of our population will be at retirement age, and we’re really in a pickle,” LeVert said.

“If we don’t start attracting young, smart, educated people, then where are today’s businesses going to find the people to replace those workers?”

It’s really a national problem, according to a recent book by Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.

“After the Recovery: Help Needed,” is the title of Bluestone’s book, which pretty well summarizes his thesis: By 2018, if the recovery holds and immigration trends continue, there will be more jobs than qualified people to fill them.

Bluestone expects “Encore Careers” to be part of the solution. With better health and less physically demanding jobs, he sees more people choosing to work into their 70s.

Some will ditch their old careers for new jobs that they find more interesting or fulfilling.

Others who have lost pensions or never had them will simply be forced to work beyond their expected retirement ages whether they want to or not.

Still, Bluestone and others say this won’t be enough, which is something the U.S. Congress needs to take into account as it tackles immigration reform.

The U.S. will have an increasingly difficult time attracting the highly trained technical workers who have been so successful starting new businesses in the U.S. as the economies and living conditions in their home countries improve.

The U.S. does need to control its borders, but we must also find ways to make the U.S. even more attractive to ambitious and highly trained workers from abroad.

Maine’s challenge is even tougher — attracting its share of those people while finding ways to provide opportunities for its own young people.

LeVert isn’t the first to warn policymakers about Maine’s declining workforce. Others have been talking about it for nearly 10 years.

What we need now is a concrete plan for growth.

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