Creative Workforce Programs Aim to Stave Off Economic Decline in Maine

Augusta, Maine

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Public officials and business leaders worry about a demographic implosion and lagging educational achievements that put the state’s economy at risk.

NORTHEAST HARBOR, Maine — When the unemployment rate in Maine hit a 40-year low of 3 percent this spring, political leaders celebrated. Republican Gov. Paul LePage was quick to boast that “our efforts to lower taxes, reform welfare and bring fiscal responsibility to government are working.” But others were not so ecstatic.

Employers throughout the state have been complaining that they can’t find workers to staff their operations. In Portland, Maine’s largest city, John Ryan, president of Wright-Ryan construction company, told the Press-Herald in April that he was having trouble finding both skilled and unskilled workers. In Ellsworth in July, the Home Depot outlet displayed a large banner advertising jobs for 16- and 17-year-olds. On Mount Desert Island, shortages have been mitigated with immigrant labor: for example, about 20 young Jamaicans have four-month visas to help staff businesses here in Northeast Harbor.

The labor situation could get much worse.

Outside a Home Depot location in Ellsworth, Maine. (Photo by Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

Population trends in Maine are gradually shrinking the state’s homegrown workforce. By 2032, the number of working-age adults, 25-64, is projected to contract from 700,00 to 600,000. And skills gaps are so deep that businesses may have difficulty remaining in the state.

These trends suggest that the Pine Tree State’s economy, already trailing the rest of New England’s growth rate, may enter a spiral of decline.  

But a highly creative and comprehensive effort to fight the trends is under way, bringing together educators and business leaders to step up achievement both among current students and adults who haven’t reached their full potential.

James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, is at the center of the fray. He is working not only with his network of seven universities, serving about 30,000 students, but also with community colleges and other institutions that may be able to bring Maine’s population most of the way up to the skill levels it will need to staff jobs of the future.

In a recent interview he noted that he likes to shock audiences by asking how many babies are born in Maine each day. Guesses number in the hundreds, but when Page reports that the average is only 32, a gasp of surprise is the usual reaction.  

The last time the Census Bureau took a snapshot of Maine’s population, the data showed that the state had gained only 967 people between 2010 and 2015, and had actually lost population from 2014 to 2015. The Bureau put the state’s population at 1,329,328.

At the time, the Portland Press-Herald quoted Charles Colgan, a former state economist and retired professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine, as saying, “Maine is not unique. Most of the Northeast is in the same boat, with more people leaving than coming, and more people dying than being born. We’re all competing for the same people, the same workers, and it’s not clear yet who is winning that competition.” Immigrants were the only population category showing some growth, Colgan noted.

In a report to the Maine legislature in early March, Page gave a concise view of the problem and his solution:

“Put these these two simple facts together—that our core working population is declining at the same time that greater educational attainment will be required for most new jobs—and one point becomes crystal clear: Maine must actively invest in our people’s future and the foundation of that investment must be greater educational opportunity and increased educational attainment. To do less is to consign our state to economic stagnation and worse.”

Fixing the Public Universities

Maine’s public university system, with about 30,000 students, is at the core of efforts in the state to improve educational and economic outcomes. Its fiscal 2017 budget totals $512 million, and it employs about 4,600 people, including nearly 1,500 faculty.

Page grew up in rural Caribou, near the Canadian border, and graduated with a BA in History at the University of Maine’s remote Fort Kent campus, then earned advanced degrees in the philosophy of physics and the philosophical foundations of mathematics. He was CEO of a Maine-based consulting firm when the USM trustees chose him in 2012.

University of Maine System Chancellor James H. Page (Courtesy UMS)

Soon after he took office, Page and the UMS Board of Trustees set course on a program of reform they called the One University Initiative. At the time, a university fact sheet says, UMS “was operating under an out-of-date business model that let to state and national scrutiny about the costs, responsiveness and long-term viability of our universities.”  

The system had been suffering a decade of declining enrollments. It was running operating deficits that would rise sharply absent significant structural reforms. There was little prospect of greater state aid to UMS, given LePage’s 2010 election as a low-tax conservative Republican who as recently as Aug. 18 called traditional classroom teachers “a dime a dozen.”

In a detailed presentation this spring to the State Higher Education Officers Association, Page reported significant savings. As compared to 2007, he said, the university system’s workforce has shrunk by 826 positions, or 15 percent, to a 2016 headcount of 4,587. The faculty lost 302 positions, with 1,453 remaining, and staff headcount was down by 464, to 3,040. The administrative staff took deeper cuts, shrinking by 39 percent, to a 2016 level of 94 positions.

All of this has resulted in $82 million a year in cost avoidance. And actual spending has been shrinking too, from $524 million in 2012 to $507 million in 2016, before inching up to $512 million in 2017.

Meantime, state aid has been declining as a share of the university system’s funding from a high of 73 percent in 1989 to 41 percent in 2014. Over the same 25 years, tuition’s share of costs grew from 23 percent to 51 percent.

Tuition, though, has been frozen for six years, as Page and his team have labored to keep college affordable for Maine residents. That has put Maine in rarified company: only two other states, California and Washington, have seen an inflation-adjusted decrease in tuition and fees, according to the College Board. This year, an increase of about 3 percent is being levied, raising in-state tuition rates to between $6,840 and $8,370 at the seven campuses. And last year, for the first time in 14 years, enrollment actually increased.

Page and his team have worked to sharpen the focus of “signature” programs in UMS research and educational resources  have a competitive edge on a national scale. They include Forestry and the Environment, Marine Sciences, College of Engineering, Advanced Materials for Infrastructure and Energy, Climate Change, STEM Education and an Honors College.

They have also insisted that universities in the system actively cooperate in their educational programs, to reduce redundancy and save money.

Page said of the One University idea: “In a state of 1.3 million people, we can’t have seven public universities acting as if each is an autonomous institution. The overhead costs are too high, and more importantly we have to make these resources to as broad a base as we can.”

He offered an example: In the remote town of Fort Kent, population 4,000, the University of Maine’s campus there offers two years of engineering training. From there, Page said, students can transfer to the flagship campus at Orono, which offers undergraduate and post-graduate engineering degrees.

Another example is a federally certified degree in cybersecurity offered collaboratively by three campuses in the system, including Fort Kent and the University of Southern Maine in the Portland area.

At the heart of the reforms is a new unified financial management structure. Page said this advance will transform a formerly loose “confederation” of institutions to system that can allocate and share resources much more readily. A recent fact sheet says the initiative “enhances transparency, enables appropriate fiscal control, and advances comprehensive intra-system collaboration.”

Page said the years of effort to cut costs and rationalize the educational offerings of the system have earned his team the respect of Maine legislators. Now, he said, “it is time for the State to invest. We are the most important tool in meeting the challenges the state faces.” He mentioned the need for updated facilities for students in nursing and engineering, and the need to “keep education affordable” by keeping a tight leash on tuition costs.

Statewide Efforts

Page and other leaders in Maine have been working with high schools, community colleges and businesses to help produce the kinds of workers Maine employers will be seeking.

In his address to the legislature, Page told the story of the university’s efforts to meet the needs of a particular company located in remote Presque Isle:

MMG Insurance is a nationally-honored firm headquartered in Presque Isle. It partners with more than 190 independent agencies across 460 locations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. As you might imagine, it is critical that MMG’s staff maintain their cutting-edge knowledge and skills if MMG is to stay successful in a highly competitive industry.

How does it do this in rural Maine? Recognizing these challenges, MMG approached the University of Maine at Presque Isle to help craft a solution. In partnership with MMG leadership, UMPI President Ray Rice and his team created a state-of-the-art distance education classroom funded by MMG and the University of Maine System with help from the Maine Development Foundation. This classroom allows faculty from the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington to deliver professional development courses in such areas as risk management and the actuarial sciences. As a result, we develop programs to meet MMG’s particular requirements, helping them continue to grow a national company with a highly-skilled, competitive workforce right in rural Aroostook County.

“We’d like to have 50 of those kinds of stories across the state,” Page told Route Fifty.

Together with other educators in Maine, Page is tackling the job of getting more of Maine’s youth interested in college--and reducing the time and money they will need to gain a post-secondary degree. At the high school level, this has meant increased access to college-level courses—challenging, Page said, “the increasingly artificial barrier between 12th grade and what follows.” In 2013, 700 high school students were taking some college-level courses. Today, that number is about 2,500, studying at 100 schools across the state.

Page told the legislature about young Brittany Theriault, who went to school in Fort Kent and managed to earn 27 fully transferable college credits. She was able to enter college as a sophomore, graduating in three years from the Fort Kent campus with a bachelor of science degree in nursing. Theriault is helping to fill an exploding gap in the nursing workforce. There are 200 positions open today, Page said, but experts have projected there will be 3,200 vacancies in a few years. So the university system is cooperating to mount a “Nursing Summit” this fall to discuss solutions to the problem, which was recent front-page news in Maine Sunday Telegram.

Prominent among other groups working to prepare young people for more robust careers is Educate Maine, a coalition largely composed of businesses in the state.

Executive Director Ed Cervone and his staff have been asking businesses and trade associations “to clearly state what they need in terms” of skills in their workforces. “We are working with the construction and building trades right now, with electrical and plumbing and others, to better align their needs with programs in the high schools and technical school,” Cervone said in an interview. The organization encourages its members to develop apprenticeship and intern programs that ultimately lead to jobs.

“Another big need,” said Cervone, is in computing and information technology.

Educate Maine has developed a Project Log-In, offering support for high-school, college and nontraditional learners interested in technology careers. The program has helped arrange 160 internships, Cervone said.

Cervone said that Page, as chancellor, “has heard the message that the university system needs to be more responsive” to local industries’ needs. And you see that reflected on the campuses.” He mentioned the flagship Orono campus’s work with the forest, paper and pulp industries on research and training, and its Advanced Manufacturing Center staffed by engineers, machinists and technicians to help businesses innovate. A third initiative Cervone praised is the university’s Foster Center for Student Innovation, which describes itself as helping “students and community members develop a mindset and skill set for creating, testing, and achieving ideas.”  

Adult Learners

Stemming Maine’s decline cannot rest solely on improving educational opportunities for younger generations.

In his interview with Route Fifty, Page returned to the demographic challenge. He said that even if every one of the children in the K-12 pipeline earns a post-secondary degree, that would go only about halfway to meeting the need for such workers some 15 years from now.

So the state is looking for ways to interest more adults in improving their credentials. One significant initiative has been creation of eight university “outreach centers” in cities like Ellsworth and Rockport. The centers are staffed and provide guidance to students on how best to mix televised lectures, on-line learning and other resources. These centers, and other online learning programs, grouped together as the “University College,” are “really critical,” Page said. “If you are in Northeast Harbor, or in Rumford, and you’re 35 years old with a family, you’re not going to go to a campus and live in a dorm.”

But, he added, it has been “very difficult” to reach the adult population.

Maine is one of 13 states the Lumina Foundation has singled out for grants aimed at increasing the number of adult learners. Others include Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Vermont.

A group of educators and business leaders, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce has banded together as the Maine Workforce and Education Coalition, and earlier this year they adopted a resolution titled “Maine’s ‘60 by 2025’ Commitment to Growing the State’s Economy.” The resolution, signed by leaders of 21 groups, succinctly lays out the demographic and workforce credentialing problems facing the state and sets “an attainment” goal of increasing to 60 percent the share of Maine workers with postsecondary certificates or degrees.

That goal was embraced in June by the state legislature. It passed a bill, now signed into law, making a 60 percent attainment goal by 2025 one of the responsibilities of the State Workforce Investment Board.

A key player in representing the private sector’s interest in the workforce issue is Yellow Light Breen, president of the Maine Development Foundation. In an interview, he praised Page’s efforts, while noting that “turning around a public university system is one of the hardest things to do.”

Breen said the share of workers in Maine with post-secondary degrees is advancing by about 1 percentage point a year.

“People are getting it; they need these credentials,” he said. “But we need to accelerate the trend. The world is changing at a certain rate, but if you really want to be competitive, you want to beat that curve. We need a step change. Educational levels in big metropolitan areas, in southern New England, in India and China keep going up so if we are going to make up ground, we cannot rest on the natural rate of change in the state of Maine.”

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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