On some rankings of the states, it’s not good to be first. Here’s an example. The US Census has just released data that shows that Maine is officially the oldest state in the nation, followed closely by our neighbors, Vermont and New Hampshire. By the way, we’re also one of the least diverse. A map that came out last week showed all the northern tier states with the lowest percentages of non-white residents. Last week, members of the Maine Tourism Association were quoted as saying that hold-ups in visas meant that some of their jobs were going unfilled….
What does all of this mean? First, it’s clear that we will have less workers going forward. This is a Catch-22 – employers won’t want to come to Maine or start businesses here if they don’t think they will be able to hire the people them need. And people won’t move here unless they think they will be able to find a job. Which comes first, the job or the worker?
Second, it’s also clear that normal population growth isn’t going to solve the problem. With our demographics, deaths are now exceeding births. More than one-half of the women in Maine are past child-bearing age.
What’s the alternative? Immigration of younger people, whether from other states or other countries. While we do get our fair share of immigration from other states, notably Massachusetts, Florida, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Texas, we lose about the same number of people to these same states! And only around 4500 people moved to Maine from another country in 2011, for instance.
The statistics also look like we lose our young people and gain retirees, a trend that isn’t good at all for our economy. In the not too distant future, there simply won’t be enough workers in Maine.
So, what should be done? For one, I think we should be working to attract young people to Maine, and keep our young folks here. We should spend at least as much on attracting this cohort of workers as we do on tourism advertising. It’s not like we don’t have a story to tell, with Portland’s ascendency as a “cool” place, with lots of arts, entertainment and restaurants, the great outdoor opportunities for all four seasons here, and our embrace of diversity (e.g., embracing gay marriage).
Another angle to work on is diversity. There’s an awesome program in Pittsburgh called Vibrant Pittsburgh that’s working to bring workers that have been excluded from the mainstream in the past into the workforce, including recruiting them from away. This is part word of mouth campaign, part worker training, part employer involvement. You can easily imagine such as campaign working like our efforts to bring foreign students to our high schools – imagine this effort ramped up systematically.
All of this is to retain the characteristics of Maine that we all love, but also to gain from a younger, more diverse population. Unless we want big parts of Maine to look like the Ghost Towns out West, we need to start thinking about this challenge.