Down East 2013 ©
Presque Isle native Matt Melcher says one of the best things about his new career as a wind turbine technician is the view. At the top of a three hundred-foot turbine at the Granite Reliable Power Wind Project in northern New Hampshire’s Coos County, Melcher can see south to Mount Washington and east all the way to the Bigelows. When the leaves changed this fall, the mountains were covered in a patchwork of brilliant red, orange, and yellow.
The view was what made Melcher excited about his new career. After all, there was plenty not to be excited about — Melcher was leaving a reliable job at a freight liner dealership to pursue a career that would require him to learn a whole new skill set, a gamble of time and money on a relatively new trade with no guarantee of long-term success. But in the early days of Northern Maine Community College’s wind-power program, the instructor made his students scramble up to the top of a wind turbine to test for vertigo and the view from the top clinched it for Melcher. “I thought it was real cool,” he says. “It made me want to do the job.”
At thirty-one, Melcher’s joining thousands of Mainers betting on a new career after hitting a dead end in one of Maine’s traditional industries. Melcher now works in an eighteen-dollar-per-hour position for Vestas, an international wind-power developer based in Denmark. The wind turbine technician’s hourly wage is three dollars higher than the Maine median and nets Melcher more than his previous jobs in forestry and sales.
Melcher comes from a long line of loggers, but his father had always warned him against working in forestry. Too much work for too little money, Melcher recalls him saying. Now he’s thinking dad was right.
“The people who are most acutely affected by the latest recession were involved in industries and occupations that just might not come back, so retraining is critical for them,” says Adam Fisher, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor. While sixty years ago, nearly half of employed Mainers worked in goods-producing sectors like manufacturing, construction, and forestry, today those industries employ only 14 percent of the workforce. So where are the jobs? Economists say today, and for the foreseeable future, the jobs are in service.
This includes waiters, customer service reps, and other jobs typically associated with service as well as technicians like Melcher, professional service jobs like lawyers and accountants, and the grand daddy of Maine’s service future — healthcare.
The Great Recession continued an economic transformation in Maine started in the early 1990s, when manufacturing jobs began being lost en masse overseas and Maine’s aging population began stunting office turnover and creating a seemingly unquenchable need for personal services. According to the Maine Department of Labor, nearly 22,300 jobs were lost in Maine since the start of the recession in December 2007. Many of them were in traditional sectors. And the squeeze continues — Maine’s advisory panel of economists, the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission, had predicted a six thousand-job bump in non-farm employment in the second half of 2011 but flat-lined hiring forced the commission to later revise the increase out of the forecast.
Coupled with the decline in traditional sectors is the formidable influence of the country’s 78 million baby boomers born from 1946 to 1964. This year, the oldest of the cohort hit sixty-five, the traditional retirement age. The travel and leisure habits of this demographic are expected to bolster consumer spending in tourism and hospitality but the devastation to retirement funds brought on by the recession has caused an interesting twist to the tale — a recent CBS poll found 73 percent of boomers plan to work past the traditional retirement age, which means they’ll continue to occupy jobs that might otherwise be offered to young hires. Maine is the oldest state in the country with a median age of 42.7 years, and many of its businesses are chronically short on young workers. According to the Local Employment Dynamics Program, while the number of workers under age forty-five declined between 2001 and 2009, the number of workers over age forty-five increased, most acutely among the fifty-five and over cohort, which grew nearly 54 percent. These older workers therefore are so fundamental that the Maine economy depends upon their ability to be retrained.
“Few and far between is going to be the person that goes into one career and stays through their entire life,” says Garret Oswald, director of the Maine Jobs Council, which advises the governor on workforce retraining.
State economists say the sectors likely to lead Maine out of recession are business and professional services (including the law, accounting, and consultanting), tourism and hospitality, and, above all, healthcare, which currently accounts for some 20 percent of all job postings in the state and is projected to account for five of the top ten fastest growing occupations predicted by 2018. According to Muskie School of Public Service Economist Charlie Colgan, these three are the only sectors that within four years will even approach pre-recession employment levels because of the lingering ripple effects of a weak construction industry and public sector job cuts.
Within these sectors, most of the jobs paying at or above the state’s median hourly wage of $15.28 require post-secondary degrees. That’s an added challenge in a state in which post-secondary degree attainment has long been the lowest in the region — a 2010 Mitchell Institute study found 39 percent of working-age adults in Maine have post-secondary degrees compared with 47 percent in New England. The Maine Community College System (MCCS) is considered affordable and accessible, positioned best to meet the wide-ranging need, but it’s currently at capacity with wait lists for all programs. To address this enrollment bottleneck, MCCS announced in November that twenty of the state’s most prominent businesses had donated $11.3 million in cash and equipment to expand offerings and boost system enrollment from 18,300 today to 25,000 students by 2018.
This investment should complement already existing efforts to improve access to higher education. Efforts like the Bring College to ME program, founded in 2007, which is designed to improve rural access to associate’s degrees in healthcare. Bring College to ME taps the seven community colleges throughout the state to partner with rural hospitals and healthcare providers for laboratory and classroom space to provide in-person and distance learning for rural Mainers, many of whom were laid off from weakening sectors like manufacturing and natural resources. Degrees in nursing, medical assisting, emergency medical technician, and health IT are offered.
“The need for healthcare workers across the state will continue to be significant,” says Helen Pelletier, director of public affairs for the Maine Community College System. The labor gap, she says, has forced the MCCS into “providing rapid response to the need and providing folks with the skills they need to get jobs that are available in their community.”
But the demand for healthcare workers is acute and a retirement cliff looms in which some or all of the state’s aging nurses are expected to retire from a system they will in turn then rely on. In November, the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) launched a $4.9 million program to provide certification training to healthcare workers, specifically certified nursing assistants, nurses, and other medical professionals working in hospitals or doctors’ offices. The program’s goal is to help certify one hundred nurses, one hundred allied healthcare professionals, and two hundred CNAs by 2013.
“We need more healthcare workers and people don’t necessarily have the money to go back to school right now, so this is helping those folks afford it,” says Joan Dolan, healthcare grant manager for MDOL. Recession-strapped businesses, says Dolan, also sometimes don’t have the resources to train current employees.
The on-site certification program is allowing CNA Cheryl Kolodziej to, at age 51, finally pursue the nursing degree she’s wanted since she began her career in 1974. Kolodziej works at Mount Desert Island Hospital (MDIH) in Bar Harbor and is one of three CNAs there enrolled in the “patient safe handling” certification program, the pilot healthcare grant offering. The grant program allows Kolodziej to attend one class per month at MDIH and other area hospitals for free. She plans to someday use credits from the program toward a nursing program at an area university.
“I’ve been doing this for several years and going for my nursing degree is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “I’ve wanted to go back to school for quite a while and I’m kind of hoping this boosts my career.”
The Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board has focused since 2006 on helping laid-off workers pursue careers in growth sectors through its area career center. Executive Director Jeff Sneddon says his population’s immediate retraining needs include basic resume and computer skills because many of the middle-aged workers laid off from lifelong careers don’t know how to conduct an online job search. After those barrier skills are addressed, Sneddon says his career counselors have to level with the displaced workers — the switch to a new career will likely mean less money and less responsibility. For example, healthcare is a growing sector, Sneddon agrees, but without any experience most new employees are looking at entry-level, low-paying medical office work.
“I tell them once you get your foot in the door, that’s the key,” says Sneddon.
When Michael Thomas was laid off from his construction job at Auburn-based Fortin Construction in August 2010, he says he was devastated. He had rent to pay, a family to support, and suddenly at age fifty-two, after ten years with the company, and thirty in construction, he had to look for new work in the middle of one of the country’s worst recessions.
“Trying to figure out what you’re going to do is like looking into a black hole and trying to see the bottom,” says Thomas. He says he was applying for jobs he either wasn’t qualified for or that would have been meaningless to him, like a job as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant. He was seriously considering working at a McDonald’s when he decided to consult the career counselors at the Central/Western Maine Career Center.
There he found out about the state’s grant-funded healthcare certification program. In February, Thomas hopes to receive his certification in surgical technology, a field that pays about eighteen dollars per hour, up from the thirteen dollars he was earning in construction. If he finds the job he’s betting on, Thomas says he may pursue an associate’s degree in the field.
“I’m fifty-two, and I’ve been out of school since I was eighteen, so to crack out the books and cram all that knowledge into my head has been hard,” he says. “But I’ve been doing it.”
Anita Campbell of Auburn hopes to avoid the entry-level by finding new work that requires skills from her previous life as a banker. Campbell, 54, was laid off from her job as loan broker in 2009 after twenty-five years in area banking. Campbell had a front-row seat to the banking industry’s hemorrhage during the recession and was convinced the sector wouldn’t rebound anytime soon. But she found that she was overqualified for most of the entry-level jobs she was applying for in other sectors. Counselors at the Central/Western Maine Career Center advised Campbell to look at pursing an associate’s degree in healthcare management, a career that would allow her to transfer her finance and office management skills.
“It’s something I’ve had an interest in for awhile,” says Campbell of healthcare. “But sometimes I think it takes a change in your life to really refocus.”
Campbell plans to graduate from Kennebec Valley Community College’s Medical Office Management program in May. Then she’ll begin her job search.
“I’m looking at this as a commitment to the future,” she says. “I’m making a commitment to the future.”