Last September, the state asked 3,400 business owners to identify their most difficult jobs to fill.

Turned out, it was most of them.

Employers couldn’t find people for at least three out of four open positions, across the board.

“We found, really, an awful lot of different occupations and different industries were reporting difficulty,” said Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research.

He estimated a seemingly high 31,000 job openings across the state in September 2016 and planned to resurvey this month to find out how 2017 compares.

Unfortunately, he can’t.

Mills doesn’t have enough staff. And he’s hardly alone.

This week, there were 13 help wanted signs along a 2-mile stretch of Center Street in Auburn:

At Dead River. The Dollar Tree. K & R Auto Sales. George’s Pizza. At Burger King, advertising up to $10 an hour. At Sherwin-Williams, a few doors down, advertising $12 an hour.

Across the river in Lewiston, Scott Riccio at Northeast Charter & Tour Co. is looking for 10 to 15 more drivers and estimates he’ll spend $60,000 to $70,000 this year on advertising and training to try to find them.

Sunday River Resort, an hour away in Newry, has added a recruitment manager to its staff as it gears up to hire 1,100-plus seasonal workers and it’s offering a new incentive: an employee bonus up to $300 to anyone referring cooks, housekeepers and snowmakers.

Driving the scramble to find staff is a state unemployment rate that’s hovered at 4 percent or lower for nearly two years, Mills said.

Maine has had only one longer “extremely low” unemployment stretch since records started in 1976. 

He may not have enough people — like the businesses he studies, “strong job growth and very low unemployment make for a challenging hiring environment” — but Mills may have reason to hope.

Getting away to stay

Maine’s unemployment rate in July was 3.7 percent, below the 4.3 percent U.S. average. The state figure for August won’t be out for another two weeks. 

The last stretch of 4 percent or under, from 1999 to 2001, was all about the booming economy, Mills said. “This time there’s strong growth, generally, but there’s also the demographic aspect involved: Our labor force isn’t growing because so many are retiring.

“This should last quite some time unless we’re able to entice a big, big wave of in-migration,” he said. “It’s possible that has started.”

While the U.S. Census projects Maine’s population only grew by 3,118 people in the past six years, the number of nonfarm payroll jobs in that time grew by 17,900, to 624,400 as of July.

Someone’s working them, and it’s not more teens: Mills said after a low birthrate in the 1980s, fewer young people today are entering the job market than retirees are leaving it.

He’s hoping some of those 17,900 new jobs are being filled by people moving here for the first time or who are moving back and won’t be picked up in census counts until 2020.

Ed McKersie, who launched the website Live + Work in Maine two years ago and has the Department of Economic and Community Development’s workforce attraction contract, believes outreach is paying off.

“Especially folks who maybe came here from away and went to college here, we’re trying to line them up with an internship or at least make sure that they’re aware of the employment options and opportunities there are in Maine before they naturally go back to Connecticut or New York or wherever they came from,” McKersie said.

Several months ago, Live + Work in Maine took a bus of employers down to Boston for a meet and greet that targeted, in part, alumni from Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges and Husson University.

The job site has 300 active postings, including a precision machinist for Elmet Technologies and a mixing technician at Compounding Solutions, both in Lewiston. More than 75 jobs have been listed by Central Maine Medical Family in just the past month (emergency room nurses, phlebotomists and office managers).

A spokesman for the health care system said it’s “competing for talent in a market where supply is tight.”

McKersie doesn’t have hard numbers on how many candidates have been matched with employers.

“Most of it is anecdotal,” he said. “My wife is a Realtor. She has a number of people (comment about moving to Maine). One couple in particular just moved to Freeport and they have no ties to Maine. They’re both in IT; they can work remotely and are in high demand. They’re from Connecticut, were living in Florida, were thinking of getting back to New England, saw something about Live + Work in Maine, went on the site and both of them got hired.”

Peter DelGreco, president and CEO of Maine & Company, which specializes in attracting businesses to the state, said workforce availability — enough people to fill a company’s open positions — has always been one of the first discussions when a company eyes an expansion.

However, the tight labor market isn’t hurting those talks, he said.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve had some of our best successes ever,” DelGreco said, listing off Grand Rounds, Wayfair, Collaborative Consulting and Sun Life Financial among them.

Grand Rounds’ expansion into Lewiston last year spurred a handful of moves back to the state (see sidebar) and created 40 jobs so far. The company’s getting ready to hire 10 to 15 more.

“(Companies) let us make the argument (that there are workers to be had),” DelGreco said. “We’re starting to see this, anecdotally, that some of the millennial generation, as they’ve gotten into their late 20s and early 30s, instead of wanting to be in Boston, they’re starting to look to within their organizations and say, ‘Are there opportunities for us in Maine?’ It makes me incredibly hopeful that turns into a trend and begins to show up in the data.”

‘If I could hire 10 people today, I would.’

Beyond out-of-state outreach, Mary LaFontaine coaches local companies every day to get creative.

LaFontaine, who is regional director of the state’s Southern CareerCenters, including the one in Lewiston, said businesses are raising pay, training people from within to move up, reaching out to colleges and retooling how they present themselves.

“We talk to employers around what makes them unique or an employer of choice,” LaFontaine said. “If there’s two manufacturers next door to each other, why would I want to choose one over the other?” 

She suggested that employers spice up job listings and talk about culture, why employees stay at the company or if they have been named a Best Place to Work in Maine, ahead of job requirements such as the ability to lift 50 pounds.

“We also talk to them about how social media has become a prime tool,” LaFontaine said. “Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram — all of them are options. We talk about considering labor pools that might not have normally been considered: older workers, veterans, people with disabilities, our immigrants and refugees, youth.”

At the Manufacturers Association of Maine’s annual summit in Lewiston this summer, Executive Director Lisa Martin said 44 percent of attendees named attracting and retaining a quality workforce as their top issue.

“Every company I talked to: ‘If I could hire 10 people today, I would. Can’t find them,'” Martin said.

In addition to stepped-up outreach to veterans and immigrant groups, in two weeks, she’s touring Department of Corrections facilities to see about connecting pre-release prisoners with manufacturing work.

“If somebody is getting released and they can step into a job with their support services, they’re going to be making enough money to support themselves instantly,” Martin said. “What a win-win for anybody, so I’m really excited about that.”

At Sunday River, they’ll start hiring between 1,100 and 1,300 people this month. Darcy Lambert, director of communications, said one of the resort’s new tactics is building partnerships with seasonal summer businesses on the coast.

“Our main goal is to provide team members with employment in the winter and then refer them to our coastal partners for summer employment opportunities,” she said.

Cort Mendez, president and CEO of NH Glazed LLC, plans to hire 60 employees in October for the new Krispy Kreme on Center Street, projected to open early to mid-November. 

“I’m taking the approach, ‘We need to be a unique employer here,'” he said. “There’s a lot of companies in the hospitality industry that are looking for people. How can we attract them over to Krispy Kreme and once we get them in the door, how can we retain them? It’s a tough environment — there’s no doubt about it.”

He hopes to stand out by offering all employees the opportunity to take part in a management training program.

In addition to health and dental insurance and performance incentives, “the other thing is we’re also offering college tuition loan assistance,” he said. “If they’ve got loans out there, we’ll take on some of that burden.”

The Oxford Casino just started hiring 60 people for opening day of the new Oxford Casino Hotel and its OX Pub restaurant in early November.

Spokeswoman Jane Hoyt said they’re confident that benefits, competitive wages and opportunities for advancement will fill those jobs.

Riccio at Northeast Charter & Tour Co. said he’s offering monthly and yearly bonuses and last year hired a full-time driver trainer for the first time to be able to train good prospects with no experience.

He’s got to hope, once trained, they’re not poached by municipalities.

“It’s so different than it was even five years ago to try and get candidates through the door,” Riccio said. “Because we don’t have enough drivers, we can’t expand. We’ve got to make sure we can take care of the work we have. If I talk to bus companies in Orlando, Phoenix or Los Angeles, we’re all in the same boat.” 

World events can, of course, change things very quickly, Mills said. The last low unemployment streak — 31 months then to our 22 months now — ended in August 2001. The next month, planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

“Absent anything like that or the kind of bubbles that took down the economy in 2008, I see a tight labor market continuing for quite a while,” he said.

It’s tight, but it’s workable, LaFontaine said.

“I talked to a restaurant in Freeport last week,” she said. “He said he actually took tables out of his dining room so people couldn’t sit because he did not have enough cooking and serving staff, so that is already happening.

“I don’t think it’s a dead end for our business,” LaFontaine said. “I believe there are people available to fill our jobs; maybe not the numbers we need, but the answer to that is recruiting people from out of state, and we’ve begun that process.

“I would not say it’s hopeless by any means,” she said. “Will it take work? Yes.”

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TD Bank in the Auburn Mall is hiring.

TD Bank in the Auburn Mall is hiring.

Harbor Freight Tools in Auburn is hiring.

Harbor Freight Tools in Auburn is hiring.

Family Dollar in Auburn is hiring.

Family Dollar in Auburn is hiring.

George’s Pizza in Auburn is hiring.

George’s Pizza in Auburn is hiring.

Sherman Williams is hiring help for their Auburn location.

Sherman Williams is hiring help for their Auburn location.

Burger King is hiring for all shifts in their Auburn store.

Burger King is hiring for all shifts in their Auburn store.

Arcadia is hiring a variety of positions from their Auburn location.

Arcadia is hiring a variety of positions from their Auburn location.

Hair by Gregory’s is hiring in Auburn.

Hair by Gregory’s is hiring in Auburn.

JCP Salon is hiring in the Auburn Mall.

JCP Salon is hiring in the Auburn Mall.

Dead River is hiring drivers from their Auburn storefront.

Dead River is hiring drivers from their Auburn storefront.

Papa Gino’s Pizzeria in the Auburn Mall is hiring.

Papa Gino’s Pizzeria in the Auburn Mall is hiring.

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