Making Maine “The Way Life Should Be”

Everett Beals, Opinion Editor

For visitors to the state of Maine, our spirit of hospitality is one of the first things they notice. It marks our license plates, our highway signage, and is written on the face of almost every local. Slogans famously describe Maine in terms like “Vacationland,” and “The Way Life Should Be” – but there’s one that stands out to me. On drives over the Piscataqua River Bridge in Kittery, the sign which reads, “Maine: Worth a Visit, Worth a Lifetime,” never fails to catch my eye. While all communicate a message of hospitality, this one in particular speaks to something deeper. This kind of branding is indicative of preliminary efforts to address the largest problem our state has yet faced in the 21st century: many young Mainers end up leaving as adults, and few young non-residents are choosing to move here. There is no one solution to this complex challenge, which itself is largely symptomatic of and uniquely interconnected with three central issues – an evolving job market, an aging population, and a massive labor shortage – however, the solutions are not completely unknown. Some can already be found in our communities, and many are close within our reach. In tackling these, we may create a Maine of opportunity for our youth. 

To understand how our present labor and population dynamics came to be, we must first understand our past. By the 20th century, Maine’s once small villages had grown to be powered by industrial jobs, often in mill complexes statewide. These were followed by service businesses, often to support the expanding working population facilitated by manufacturers. This was the foundation on which our communities were built; it led to new schools, affordable housing, and had connected all corners of what Maine Historical Society records described as once a “state of islands.” Those accounts detail the downfall of the Ocean Highway, when the first real challenges for Maine’s newly-industrialized communities would arise. Textile facilities statewide would face extreme pressure from now global competitors. Unable to sustain the delicate business situation, many were bought out, consolidated elsewhere, or shut down entirely. Seemingly all at once, thousands were out of a job statewide, and communities were shrinking as fast as they once grew. 

In towns across the state, formerly reliant on manufacturing work, ghostly towers of shuttered mills cast a shadow on an unsure populace. After that first period of decline, all that remained inland were the paper and pulp mills, the backbone of Maine’s industrial economy. This is still largely true, though a second wave of manufacturing shutdowns started to batter the state starting in the 2000s, later compounded by the 2008 recession. The story of communities devastated in the 20th century like Sanford, Lewiston, and Skowhegan is now being painfully relived elsewhere, in towns such as Millinocket, Rumford, and Lincoln. In a 2017 issue of The University of Maine’s Policy Review journal, researchers attempted to measure the full impact of the closures. Noting that only nine paper or pulp plants remain open, they observed that communities which had lost those manufacturers are struggling to rebuild. Even mills only reduced to lower capacities couldn’t serve the high-skill workforce developed around them; jobs were cut substantially. Research from Orono indicated that every major paper manufacturing center along the Penobscot River had been closed by the year 2016. In Millinocket, as a 2018 Wall Street Journal piece by John Kamp would detail, population has shrunk by 16% since 2000, with residents scrambling to find ways to facilitate business while encouraging the young to stay.

It’s important to remember the story of Maine’s industrial decline, and focus on that of the present day, to understand in part why so many leave. The traditional job market has changed, and good jobs are no longer available statewide, especially in towns bordering the “frontier” of the Maine wilderness. It’s created a stigma that pervades even those communities which have found new revenue sources, especially along the coast – it’s something the organization Live + Work in Maine calls an “awareness issue,” affecting both our state psyche and national image. Many residents leave because of lack of opportunity, and many would-be immigrants perceive the same to be true for the whole state. It’s not productive to lament what once was; rather we must understand the lesson taught. We can’t expect industry to come back, and it’s not what’s going to keep Mainers around. As we approach these issues, we should see these towns as part of the answer as they create opportunities to stem the flight of their young residents.

Our next greatest challenge involves the population worst-affected by the economic downturn – if there’s any reason we’re going to need more young people in our state, it’s because of our elderly. Maine is now the oldest state in the Union, with an average age of 44.9, as reported by Lori Valigra of the Bangor Daily News in 2019. She continues, writing that by 2026, we’ll witness a 55% increase in individuals aged over 65. Total population change from year to year is nearly stagnant, at a mere .25% increase from 2017 to 2018. In fact, in-state deaths continually outnumber births. Perhaps more immediately concerning than low population growth, or even an aging society, is the fact that the majority of healthcare professionals attending to the elderly are themselves around the same age. Around a third of our physicians are over 60, as would report on only March 30th of this year. Half of the registered nurses in rural counties, they add, are over 55. What’s more, the critical load soon expected to test our healthcare infrastructure may already have arrived in those same regions. One nursing home group in northern Maine, they wrote, has had to close admissions to 26 of its facilities due to low staffing. This is reflective of the final challenge our state faces in relation to the emigration of young people: an unforeseen labor shortage of seemingly unprecedented scale.

The shifts in the dynamics of our workforce first came as a surprise to Mainers. Though certain aforementioned communities were left behind in economic terms, it seemed that Maine had recovered from its employment woes. We enjoyed an unemployment rate well below the national average, at 2.7%; underemployed, only at 7.8%, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. Despite this, the signs of a major workforce shortage began to creep in, first presenting themselves more acutely in coastal communities. I’ve seen it happen in my hometown of Kennebunk, as businesses become increasingly desperate for help. Downeast, the situation is largely the same, if not worse, as suggested by reporting from Kate Cough in a 2018 edition of the Ellsworth American. Asking about the labor situation, she quotes one business owner from Hancock saying, “I don’t think there is a labor market. There just is no workforce anymore.” What he describes is only the tip of the iceberg. Elsewhere, workforce shortages started showing up in the medical fields, in skilled services, and now across the board, statewide. Even in greater Portland, employers of all sizes are feeling the effects. MaineSpark, an advocacy group for adult education, estimates that the state will need 158,000 more skilled workers by 2025. Though experts have had trouble pinpointing exact causes, in a roundtable interview with Maine Public Broadcasting featuring state government economists and local business leaders, all seemed to point to two familiar issues. Pushing one side of the shortage, our older workers – filling all kinds of essential jobs, from terminal positions in their field to everyday kinds of work  – are going into retirement. On the other end, while our population dwindles, we’re losing the drivers of the base of our economy: young people.

How we address these three issues taken together will determine how we get young people to stay, and how get our state working for everyone. Understanding this, I have five proposals: 

First, and most importantly, we need to emphasize that we as a whole state have to solve the problem together. All too often, it seems like answers to the problem come only from the coast, and infrequently include those frontier communities shaken by the second industrial withdrawal as part of the solution. This needs to change, because we should be looking to them for creative answers.

Second, to keep young Mainers around and to solve our labor crisis, we must improve our educational system. It starts with increased funding for mentorship and vocational programs in our schools, which are pathways to good, local jobs. Unfortunately, not every high school is able to provide the opportunities to learn those skills. We must empower the Department of Education to expand its existing Career and Technical Education schools – of which there are only 19, scattered across the state – while also advocating for these programs to be taught in more high schools. Of the state’s $1.1 billion contribution to education subsidisation, only $50 million has been allocated for such investment, according to a 2018-2019 funding summary. We should see the labor shortage as an opportunity for young Mainers, though they must be properly equipped. To ensure this, the State must increase the affordability and availability of our community colleges and state universities, which set many young adults and adults alike on successful career paths. Included in this investment should also be further advancements in loan forgiveness programs, and childcare. Similar actions are already producing investment; Northeastern University’s internal press announced in January of this year that they’d be constructing a graduate research campus in Portland with the support of Maine businesses. 

Third, not unlike much of rural America, workers often suffer because of the distance between home and employment. Our state’s transportation infrastructure, from roads and bridges to busses and trains is crumbling, if not absent. In fact, The Bangor Daily News reported in 2019 that our systems are ranked 4th worst in the nation. Existing transportation systems hardly reach out of major metro areas. Those regions are now the economic centers of our state; without proper infrastructure to support even the existing population, how can we expect growth?

Fourth, we must continue to lead in the fields of tomorrow. Renewable energy production will increasingly become a necessity, and Maine’s leadership in the region has provided a variety of good jobs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in 2018 that three-fourths of our electricity comes from renewable resources, and that Maine leads New England in wind turbine investment. Other industries, like aquaculture, have grown rapidly as a compliment to traditional fishing professions. Yearly harvest value approached $90 million in 2019, according to the Department of Marine Resources, and local aquaculture has revived many coastal towns. Further inland, innovative recreation businesses have put former mill towns back on the map. Jobs like these provide opportunity for both locals and outside investors, with high-tech jobs encouraging young Mainers to stay. 

Fifth, affordable housing remains a serious obstacle for young people in Maine seeking high-paying jobs, especially in the Portland metro area. In 2019, the Portland Press Herald reported that only half of the city’s residents can afford rent, with a massive inequality existing between housing prices and earned wages. New housing is often intended for either the very disadvantaged or very wealthy, and hardly caters to middle-income workers, who are mostly young Mainers. Through systematic reforms, we can encourage immigration to our major cities and support those living there now, including refugee communities. 

These are only the first steps, but our guiding focus throughout must be making Maine a land of more accessible opportunity for everyone. We already have a state where life is the way it should be. We just need to make sure young people can take advantage of it, no matter where they live. The country will look to us for answers, as countless more states experience what we have. Remembering the saying, “as Maine goes, so goes the nation,” let’s make where we’re going is a brighter future for our youth. 

This essay was written and submitted by the author, Everett Beals, to the 2020 Margaret Chase Smith Library Essay Contest. It won first place.