BETHEL — Finding a job-creating engine and strategies to help Maine climb out of a deep recession is a task befitting state economist Michael LeVert.
LeVert, who manages the Economics and Demographics Team at the State Planning Office in Augusta, detailed choices Maine must make to move forward into the 21st century on Wednesday morning at The Sudbury Inn.
Fourteen municipal, community and business leaders attending the monthly Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce Community Network Breakfast listened to what LeVert had to say as the event’s guest speaker.
Those choices include investing in education to create a skilled work force that better attracts businesses with good-paying jobs that tie directly to state economic priorities, streamlining government, and marketing the state’s most important asset: its quality of place.
“Put simply, Maine people, business-owners and policy leaders need to decide what’s important and commit to a path forward,” LeVert said.
“A failure to commit to sound and consistent economic development strategies is both counterproductive and ineffective.”
LeVert defined quality of place as all the exceptional things that draw people to Maine and keep them here — like being able to leave a meeting and, in five minutes, jump on a kayak, all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile.
“Quality of place attracts young, smart people to Maine and helps keep the ones we have, which in turn attracts businesses looking for a skilled work force,” he said.
“When you have healthy communities where people want to live, work and play, ideas, investments and jobs will follow. Communities that attract and keep people have strong economies.”
LeVert said Maine needs to leverage its strengths, address weaknesses and position itself for prosperity.
Its strengths include the state’s brand, sustainable resources and promising industry clusters.
“Maine has a globally-recognized brand, based on livable communities, exceptional recreational opportunities, quality products and services and unique individuals,” LeVert said.
The brand, he said, helps to attract tourists —15 million overnight visitors came to Maine in 2008 and spent $6 billion.
“It’s a major reason why people and businesses decide to locate here,” he said. “If we’re going to start attracting young, smart people to our work force, and the ideas, investments and entrepreneurs that follow, nourishing that Maine brand is critical.”
LeVert said Maine also has great fishing resources and the largest contiguous tract of forestland east of the Mississippi.
“Maine has 90 percent of the wild brook trout of the Lower 48 and remarkable forests,” he said. “The forests support 25,000 jobs in the pulp and paper industry.”
“And our sustainable resources aren’t just forests. There’s huge untapped potential for tidal, solar, wind and biomass energy. These have the potential to reduce our energy costs, create jobs and combat climate change.”
On promising industry clusters like marine technology, forest products and agriculture, LeVert said research shows that clusters of economic activity where people and supplies and knowledge are shared among participants, can be catalysts to regional economies.
Weaknesses include lagging educational attainment, attracting and retaining people, and the high cost of government and doing business.
“We know that education and employment are highly correlated, and yet Maine lags behind the nation,” LeVert said. “About 26 percent of Mainers have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 35 percent in New England.”
“A person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn 50 percent more than one with only a high school diploma.”
Knowing that population and economic growth are intertwined, LeVert said that to grow, businesses need an expanding labor force and customer base.
“Maine is not well positioned to benefit from natural population growth,” he said. “We’re older — we’re one of the oldest states in the country — and we’re the whitest state in the country, so we have a low birth rate.”
Additionally, he said the Census last year estimated that 2,000 more people left Maine than moved in.
“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?”