LEWISTON — Ronnie Lowell needs nine more employees to teach life and social skills to children with special needs. She’s after someone with reliable transportation, a good attitude and at least a GED — and she’s had a tough time of it.

It’s turning into a job-seekers’ market as the economy turns around and businesses go after more workers.

Lowell, CEO of Creative Innovations in Buckfield, is hoping to land a few new hires Monday.

At the Lewiston CareerCenter’s fall job fair, all 35 employer spots — as many as the space can hold — were snapped up early and the CareerCenter has a waiting list of businesses hoping someone else might drop out.

Companies including Geiger, Formed Fiber Technologies, Pioneer Plastics, Oxford Casino, PepsiCo, FedEx and TD Bank are signed up and hiring.

CareerCenter Manager Mary LaFontaine expects 400 to 500 people to come through Monday’s job fair between 9 and 11 a.m., down from the 600 that would have turned out just a few years ago.

“We’re healing, we’re getting better and we’re growing — all good for job seekers,” LaFontaine said. “What’s happening now for businesses is that we have already started to feel the impacts of our labor shortage, and it hasn’t even hit to its fullest capacity yet.”

The Lewiston CareerCenter’s job bank currently lists 1,200 openings, more than double the 575 openings it had this time last year. Officials attribute the jump to better outreach and a better economy.

“I hear from people regularly: ‘There are no jobs.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, stop. We have so many jobs. Please, come see us,'” she said. “There are way more jobs than there are skilled applicants.” 

Recovery

Maine has been inching toward an economic recovery, said Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

The state’s unemployment rate before the 2008 recession: 4.8 percent.

The unemployment rate as of July: 5.5 percent.

The number of nonfarm payroll jobs before the recession: 621,000.

The number of jobs now: 610,000.

“Everything is relative to where we were,” Mills said. “The job growth over the last year or two has been very good. The unemployment rate has come down much more rapidly than most of us thought it would. Very, very few states are all the way back. We’re closer to being all the way back than most states are.”

He expects two factors that aren’t linked to businesses’ bottom lines to hamper growth going forward: more aging baby boomers retiring and a low birthrate that’s produced fewer 20-somethings to fill those jobs.

“It was baked in in the ’90s when we had few kids,” Mills said. “As unemployment comes down, it’s a more competitive environment for employers to find people and a better environment for a job seeker.”

It’s also led businesses and the state to get creative, in part with a new $4.86 million federal grant that’s being used to train those who want to work but fall just short on skills. 

“We’re using a healthy portion of it right here in Androscoggin County because we have so much need,” LaFontaine said.

DOL spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the money targets those out of work at least six months and “new Mainers,” immigrants who’ve arrived with qualifications that aren’t recognized here or don’t quite translate.

“How do we get them re-credentialed in the United States?” she said. “Say they have an M.D. from a university in Africa. Maybe they’re at a point where they could work as a physician’s assistant while they get their English proficiency and some of those other things that are going to be needed in order to pass exams and then do their clinical and retake the boards here.”

LaFontaine said the CareerCenter has also been working with businesses “to help them access people they may not have considered typically in the labor pools before” — people who are disabled and want to work, veterans, older workers and people who want to work part time.

“That grant money is to help make those applicants who exist but aren’t ready for the work of today help cross that line so they are ready for the employers,” she said.

‘A new venture’

The CareerCenter is about to start a second training session for six welders, based on local demand. The first six walked into jobs with Senior Flexonics Pathway (the former WahlcoMetroflex) in Lewiston after finishing their certification.

LaFontaine said she’s working with six local businesses in need of stitchers to get preliminary training going for those jobs. She’s also heard from retailers who’d like a course teaching the basics to their would-be hires: computer use, customer service and skills such as working with money.

“We’re not creating training programs in a vacuum,” she said. “We want everything to be employer-driven so it makes sense, and jobs will happen.

“We were doing some trainings during the height of the recession but not many,” LaFontaine said. “Employers were able to keep the cream of the crop, and they were laying people off who didn’t have the skills they needed. And if they were needing somebody new, they were calling back people who’d been laid off. This is a new venture now.”

Eventually, the job competition will cause wages to rise, Rabinowitz said, and that’s started to happen in the past two years, gaining some of the ground lost during the recession.

Maine’s gone from $5.7 billion in wages pre-recession, bottomed out at close to $5.3 billion in 2010 and is now more than $5.5 billion, adjusted for inflation, Mills said. 

Lowell at Creative Innovations said she’s used the CareerCenter as a resource for marketing ideas and to make sure her pay fell in line with others in her field.

“This is a difficult job,” she said. “It’s not easy — if it was easy, the parents wouldn’t need assistance.”

That said, she has some optimism for Monday. She’s found good candidates at job fairs there before, Lowell said.

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“I hear from people regularly: ‘There are no jobs.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, stop. We have so many jobs. Please, come see us.’ There are way more jobs than there are skilled applicants.”

— CareerCenter Manager Mary LaFontaine

State of Maine jobs

Number of job openings, statewide, at career centers as of Sept. 3:

2014: 7,647

2013: 6,610

2012: 3,912

Number of job openings at the Lewiston CareerCenter as of August of each year:

2014: 1,200*

2013: 575

2012: 500

2011: 450

2010: 400

* State officials credit the jump in the past year to a mix of an improving economy and reaching out to employers to list their jobs at the CareerCenter.

Source: Maine Department of Labor

Unemployment rate

Pre-recession rate low, December 2007: 4.8 percent

Highest rate mid-recession, December 2009-March 2010: 8.4 percent

Rate in July 2014: 5.5 percent

Nonfarm payroll jobs

Peak pre-recession, February 2008: 621,000

Lowest count during the recession, August 2010: 590,500

Count in July 2014: 610,000

Source: Maine Center for Workforce Research


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