The state of Maine’s workforce

Tomorrow morning, I’m delivering a presentation to the Kennebec Valley Human Resources Association—in essence, my own “state of the state” on workforce development; it’s titled, “The State of Maine’s Workforce: An Update from the Trenches.”

For the past six years, I’ve been employed by the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board. The Local Workforce Investment Boards, or LWIBs as they’re often referred to, channel the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds, appropriating them for training and aligning them where each regional LWIB thinks they will be the most effective. A large percentage of those funds support Maine’s One-Stop Career Centers, the bricks and mortar centers where job seekers and the unemployed access employment and career resources. There are 12 One-Stop Career Centers scattered across the state.

Despite the governor’s public pronouncements about Maine’s LWIBs, the current workforce system is actually underfunded and has been since 1985 in real dollar terms. If every penny of the state’s WIA allotment received from Washington was channeled into training Maine’s 51, 200 unemployed, there would be enough training dollars to spend $112 on each person, an insufficient amount of money to retool Maine’s workforce.

The governor is in the process of restructuring Maine’s four LWIBs and folding the work that they do into a State Workforce Investment Board, or SWIB. The SWIB is already meeting and the work of facilitation and partnership that had been done by the state’s LWIBs will be assumed by Maine’s Chambers of Commerce. The delivery system, the one that chews up the majority of the $5.6 million in WIA funds isn’t changing at all. I just don’t see where the proposed cost savings that the governor and others in his cabinet, like John Butera have proposed—that they insist will increase funds for training—will come from. Perhaps rather than savings, it’s just about doing things a different way. We’ll have to see what benefits come from this restructuring.

The point of this post isn’t to get into the weeds of whether Governor LePage’s proposed changes will work, however. In fact, very little of my presentation will touch on this topic. I did want to indicate, however that some of the drivers of the restructuring at the state level are people that have been part of this “problem” for a very long time. Real change requires someone, an organization, or a broad-based workforce coalition to lead the charge. Right now, I don’t know who that is going to be.

As for Maine’s workforce issues, our skills in this state are still more aligned with a 20th century resource-based world of work, rather than the more sophisticated, diverse skills required for the 21st century. The majority of job seekers in Maine lack basic computer skills, don’t know how to market themselves to employers, and many of them—the ones that have been working for a decade or more and have been laid off—are struggling with how much the world of looking for work has changed. When they show up at Maine’s One-Stop Career Centers, they’re lost and often don’t know where to start their search for new employment.

The new SWIB has a bulleted list of priorities for workforce training in Maine.

  • Focus on industry partnership
  • Identify skills gaps
  • Prioritize training
  • Develop defined career ladders

This list isn’t vastly different than what my former boss handed me when I began my work with the LWIB in 2006. I’ve continued to work to build partnerships, and work towards better alignment of training resources so that Maine’s workers are better prepared for the world of work that exists.

With the role of facilitation shifting from LWIBs to other organizations, like the Chamber, Maine’s workforce still remains ill-prepared, not to mention it’s the oldest in the county. We also lag the rest of New England in degree attainment and as a consequence, our per capita wages are the lowest in New England. Maine’s per capita wages are $37,973. Connecticut leads the New England states with a per capita wage of $56,889.

There are a number of best practices that I’m proud to have had a hand in developing and coordinating in my region of the state. WorkReady, which I’ve promoted with an evangelical zeal, is a foundational skills program that the state should fund and make available to every TANF recipient, displaced worker, and anyone that is truly committed to the kind of reinvention that our 21st century world of work requires. Instead, the program continues to exist because of grants I’ve written, and others have piecemealed together because we believe in its efficacy. Stop stonewalling with requests for “data,” as the state is fond of using to deny stepping up to the plate. We have the data, and the program is effective—step up and help fund it!

In Somerset County, utilizing existing resources at Somerset Career and Technical Center to offer technology-based training to laid-off workers is an example of an effective program that can be offered in a cost-effective manner across the state.

The Maine State Library’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, or BTOP, establishes or enhances public computer centers in 107 public libraries in Maine. These centers will provide broadband access, information and training to vulnerable populations. This project also establishes 11 additional video conferencing regional hubs to enhance training for librarians and patrons.

This is an example of a grant project that delivers needed resources and widely disperses them through over 100 libraries across the state. It’s a much better delivery system in my opinion than the current one that the state continues to cling to.

Organizations are going to have to step up and take responsibility for the state’s workforce issues. Merely making cosmetic changes to say, “I changed the system” isn’t anything more than political posturing.

I hold out optimism that the Chambers’ role will evolve and at some point, they will be able to add capacity and staff to take on the additional tasks. Also, groups like the Manufacturer’s Association of Maine, the Maine Employers’ Initiative, and HR associations like KVHRA will have to take on increased roles in workforce development. What will be required, however, is someone, or some organization to take the lead and coordinate these activities and efforts.

I’m going to issue a charge to my audience at KVHRA to be willing to do more to help. Can their companies commit to five hours per week? This could involve one of the following activities:

  • Conducting mock interviews for job seekers participating in a WorkReady program
  • Visiting their nearby Career and Technical Center to talk about the relevance of education as it applies to a future career
  • Make a commitment to do “one more thing” relative to the Maine Employer’s Initiative
  • Model a commitment to your own personal growth

Leading by example is still an effective way, given funding shortfalls and a balkanized workforce system. In fact, it’s probably one of our better options in Maine.

4 thoughts on “The state of Maine’s workforce

  1. Bryant,

    The presentation went well. KVHRA are a great group and they have some terrific advocates for workforce development.

    With the proposed changes in the system, there will be opportunities for many groups like KVHRA to step up and take a more active role in the training of Maine’s workforce.

    It felt a little weird knowing this was the last of many presentations I’ve given on workforce development for the CWMWIB. Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to start down the workforce road nearly six years ago. It was a fun ride for most of the six years and I’ve picked up a broad-based, holistic understanding of the intersections between many of the workforce/economic/social service systems that not everyone has and that I hope somebody will recognize and acquire for their own benefit.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  2. You will land well Jim. But you will likely need to think in terms of both transferable skills and cobbling together multiple opportunities (gigs) to get a full-time paycheck. There just are not many jobs available, and a whole lot of competition for the few jobs that exist. I would also recommend starting a “tech meetup”…. It will be a source of pride to still be an active part of facilitating job growth and you will meet some awesome, proactive, brilliant people who are on the cutting edge of where our society is going. Your blog is good…and one thing that the still relatively new industry of the IT needs is good content. So you will be a one WIB state now? What a shame…but glad I did not make the move to come up there a couple of years ago. Any word on where Mike Bourret is going? Please stay in touch!

  3. Colleen,

    Thanks for your insightful comment and great suggestion on the tech startup.

    My situation and impending layoff isn’t directly tied to the reorganization of the statewide workforce system. It’s a fiscal issue specific to our board and region.

    There continues to be a push by the current administration to move towards one statewide WIB and I believe it will happen eventually. Yes, you were wise in not relocating to Maine, although Maine would have benefited from your experience and expertise.

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