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January 16, 2019

Workforce issues take center stage at Mainebiz 'Five on the Future' panel

Photo / Peter Van Allen
Photo / Peter Van Allen
Jeffrey C. Fuhrer, far left, executive vice president and senior policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, leads a discussion Tuesday with Mainebiz's featured 'Five on the Future' panelists Tom Adams, founder and CEO, Maine Coast; Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO, Maine Development Foundation; Kelley Shimansky, chief HR officer, Tyler Technologies; and Beth Sturtevant, president, CCB Construction Services.

Finding, recruiting and retaining workers continues to top the list of concerns across Maine industries, panelists agreed at Tuesday's Mainebiz "Five on the Future" program in Portland.

"Where is the workforce going to come from?" said Beth Sturtevant, president of CCB Construction.

Sturtevant was joined by Tom Adams, CEO of Maine Coast; Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation; and Kelley Shimansky, chief human resources office at Tyler Technologies. Mainebiz annually brings a panel of business leaders from across sectors in the state to talk about the economy and outlook for the year.

Tuesday's panel was moderated by Jeffrey C. Fuhrer, executive vice president and senior policy advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

While Tuesday's panel covered topics ranging from the state's infrastructure to tariffs to the possibility of another recession, much of the discussion circled back to the state's ongoing need for a larger, more skilled workforce.

In construction, the skills gap between those aging out of jobs and the generation entering the workforce looms large, Sturtevant said. "It takes people to build things, and we don't have people," she said.

Panelists agreed that recruiting workers from out of state, then keeping them, is a major focus.

Shimansky said the issue crosses all sectors.

When Tyler Technologies evaluates candidates for jobs, she said, "If they're someone from out of state, we want to make sure they appreciate what the state has to offer."

Adams said attracting and retaining workers is also a function of the strength of a business and its ability to reward employees for their contributions.

Maine Coast, a wholesale lobster and seafood company based in York, began with four employees in 2011, and now has 50. Partnerships with banks, the U.S. Small Business Administration, Finance Authority of Maine and other economic development groups helped build the company, he said.

He said the growth of the business allows him to offer good benefits and good pay.

"It's how I'm able to recruit people, by offering better jobs," he said.

All the panelists said that while drawing new workers from out of state is important, training and hiring those in Maine is a priority.

Partnerships with schools, both colleges and high school, are also becoming more common for businesses looking for skilled workers, they agreed.

Breen said the state also plays a role. Noting that money is aimed at attracting tourists to the state, he suggested, "We should be spending at least that much to recruit workers."

He added, though, that the biggest takeaway is that there isn't just one solution.

"There are a lot of little pies, it's not just 'Oh, let's stop the brain drain," he said, noting that solutions involve employers, government and other groups getting together on specific solutions.

In response to a question from Fuhrer about if there's any strategy to look at what kind of jobs are needed going forward, Breen said that one big focus has to be that post-high school education doesn't have to be a four-year degree.

"We get stuck on this either-or [belief]," he said.

Breen said certifications and two-year degrees should be a greater part of the conversation, and that instead of focusing on a specific structure, meeting the goal should be the aim.

The 90-minute panel followed Fuhrer's keynote address, in which he forecasted U.S. economic growth continuing apace despite recent volatility in financial markets.

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