AUBURN — Gov. Paul LePage’s third and final job-creation forum continued a familiar refrain at Central Maine Community College on Thursday: Maine businesses have jobs. What they don’t have is qualified applicants. 

The governor also expounded on his remarks from a previous forum during which he suggested that municipalities with strict regulations on business could see less state assistance.

LePage raised the issue during the Bangor jobs forum, saying his administration would submit legislation next session that reduces state revenue-sharing to towns with regulations stricter than the state’s. The proposal, though never officially drafted, was immediately controversial because it struck at the core of Maine’s tradition of local control.

During his closing remarks at CMCC, the governor retooled the idea, saying he hoped to start a program called Business Friendly Communities within the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The program, the governor said, would essentially create incentives for towns to keep their regulations in line with the state. LePage said towns that did so would be listed and promoted by the state.

The administration did not provide additional details. The program, LePage staffers said, is still a concept.

The forum was attended by people from close to 100 businesses, which were divided into several groups that cycled into different rooms to discuss issues they believe are inhibiting business growth. Each group met with the commissioners of various state departments, including education, labor, transportation and environmental protection. Each group also met privately with LePage without the presence of the media.

After the final private session, LePage wrapped up the event, saying Maine must do a better job of educating its children to meet the needs of employers. He lamented the decline in vocational training and an education culture that appeared to discourage children from pursuing trade vocations.

“What we’ve said over the years is that all of our kids need to go to college,” LePage said. “We’ve taken these other kids and sent them to special schools, tech schools. The only problem is that we’ve called our kids dummies if they go there because they’re not the mainstream.”

He added, “That was a sad, sad mistake. And now we’re seeing the results.”

LePage was referring to several Maine companies that have approached him saying they have available openings but few qualified prospects.

Education Commissioner Steve Bowen said the problem might not simply require structural changes in the education system, but also cultural changes.

“In the other forums, I heard a lot about the work force skills gap,” Bowen said. “Today, I heard more from employers saying that employees are showing up for work in their pajamas or sweat pants.”

He added, “Kids may be coming out of schools with skills and knowledge, but they may not be coming out of schools understanding what it means to have a job and to be employed.”

LePage touched on the same issue during his closing remarks. The governor has taken heat from progressive groups for attempts to loosen child-labor laws, but LePage said he shouldn’t be considered a “slave driver” for allowing kids to learn a trade at a young age.

“When I was 11 years old, I had two paper routes and worked at a grocery store,” he said. “Thank God somebody taught me how to work because it came in real handy when I was caught on the streets, trying to make my way through life.”

LePage said the latest forum was encouraging. However, he said the business community must do a better job of communicating with his administration and lawmakers.

“The business community has done a very poor job of getting in touch with us and telling us what their mission is, what their needs are,” LePage said. “We’ve had to come out to you. I will continue to do that.”

LePage noted that teachers had mobilized in Augusta to protest his reforms to their pensions. However, when it came to changing regulations that would help business, he didn’t see anyone.

“Most of all, we need to work together,” he said. “You have to put up with the daily press and you have to put up with the opposition. No matter what I do, as your governor, I’m going to get criticized. I’m fine with that.”

He added, “But if all the energy that is being used to criticize what we’re trying to do was repurposed, and put toward trying to fix problems, then I think we’d be a much better state.”

Mike Luciano, the human resources manager for Verso Paper, said he was encouraged by the forums, which he called a “breath of fresh air.”

Luciano’s company will experience a work force shortage as a significant number of its employees reach retirement age. He said the state had to keep its young people here.

“A lot of our people get out of college and they say, ‘I want to go to the big city; I want to go south,’” he said. “Four or five years later, they want to come home. We need to make sure we snag those people.”

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