Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis released Wednesday reported Maine’s Gross Domestic Product for the first quarter of 2016 was $58.1 billion. Given that a majority of this figure comes from wages, that roughly equals $43,684 for every Maine resident.

While those figures are impressive, lost within the analysis is how this actually plays out in the average working Maine home. And, more importantly, its impact on long term sustainability for working Mainers.

The data suggested construction jobs, mostly in Southern Maine, led the charge in increasing Maine’s GDP in the first quarter of 2016. Just as important was the increase in health care, a social assistance category. In fact, health care and social assistance increased in all 50 states. Construction and health and social assistance categories, as a percent of GDP, account for a significant number of jobs, wages and earnings for many people, including many Mainers throughout the state. Construction includes all positions from engineer to general labors. Jobs within the health and social assistance category include occupations such as ambulatory health care services, hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, and social assistance.

Occupations such as construction, health care and social assistance are typically low wage, high turnover and volatile positions. As an example, according to the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information, wages for social assistance workers increased just $10 per week between 2014 and 2015 and only $18 since 2013. Construction workers faired better. Construction workers wages increased an average of $15 per week between 2014 and 2015 and $41 per week from 2013.

Buried within the recent BEA report is personal income wages which suggest Maine’s personal income increased only 1.4 percent in the first quarter. In fact, the report suggests personal income nationally actually slowed during the first quarter. This matches the state data and highlights part of the problem. To put this in context, the current rate of inflation is 1 percent.

So what is the issue here?

Maine’s unemployment is lower in all 16 counties than it was 12 months ago. Some will say jobs are plentiful and we now know the state’s GDP has increased. Yet, weekly wages are stagnant for the majority of those work categories of construction and health and social assistance.

Some suggest the low unemployment should be a motivation for the unemployed to seek work, given the bounty of jobs, while some employers cite the lack of skilled workers as a barrier to their competitiveness.

How can the per capita GDP be around $44,000, yet the average social assistance worker earns $23,000 for 12 months of work? The answer is that the jobs that are being added are low pay positions. These are lower skill jobs whose wages have been stagnant for three years.

Social assistance workers work irregular work hours, such as nights and weekends with little opportunity for advancement or a raise. Construction workers fair better but these jobs are dependent upon weather, demand and, to some extent, increased on-the-job skills.

Those who closely read the GDP data may have experienced deja vu. In 2001, call-center jobs, which peaked at around 9,500, injected a similar lift in the Maine economy. Call-center jobs were plentiful and many flocked to newly constructed call centers around Maine. Similar to social assistance work today, these were irregular work shifts with high turnover and often in the evenings and weekends. As the industry changed, many of those jobs were eliminated. Some data suggests call-center work has rebounded, but not to the soaring levels of 2001.

While Maine should celebrate the current GDP data, it is important to continue to put this economic data in the context of wage and employment data over the long term. It is also important for us to reflect our difficult history of relying on these types of jobs as signs of economic prosperity.

I would suggest that while some may celebrate this latest report, many workers in the construction and health and social assistance occupations have little opportunity or the earnings to celebrate.

Thomas McLaughlin, PhD, is a professor at the School of Social Work, University of New England in Portland. He has spent the past 16 years researching and studying the issues and causes of poverty in Maine. He has focused on the cost of poverty and the cost effectiveness of social services. He teaches social research methods in the graduate school of Social Work in Portland.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.