Forecaster Forum: Maine needs a strategic plan

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We all like to hear good news stories and rosy predictions for the future. And there are many good things happening in Maine, from a new commitment to fighting opioid addiction to increased compensation for the people who care for our elderly and disabled. Almost all of us recognize that we’re lucky to live in this beautiful state, with its history of independence and hard work.

I feel that way, too. But there are troubling signs about the future as well, and we need to recognize them and plan on how to minimize the serious problems we face.

One sign of problems to come was a discouraging jobs report from the Maine Department of Labor. It showed that, as a state, we will experience a net job growth of just 94 jobs between now and 2026.

This sluggish job growth is a sign of one of the biggest challenges we face: Maine’s aging population. Maine has the oldest population in America, and our death rate will soon exceed our birth rate. The biggest challenge facing businesses in Maine is in finding qualified employees; our economic growth is increasingly stifled by the lack of a trained workforce. Maine’s economy faces a grave danger. If we don’t take actions to overcome this challenge, we may not have the jobs here in Maine to enable our children and grandchildren to stay and build their lives in this place we love.

Every business I have ever worked for engaged in long-term strategic planning: both looming threats and emerging opportunities are assessed, and a strategic plan of action is adopted. Having that long-term plan in place helps identify the coordinated actions needed to achieve strategic goals.

But Maine has no strategic plan. As a matter of fact, one of our governor’s first acts was to do away with the State Planning Office. He said at the time that its duties would be carried out by another organization, which never did any long-term planning and recently closed down. I find it symbolic that the office that served as a home for Maine’s long-term planning is being torn down to make room for a parking lot.

Maine needs a strategic economic development plan to assure that we are addressing the dangers facing the state, most critically the “demographic winter” that we are fast approaching. Here are examples of ways a strategic plan could address Maine’s workforce needs:

• We need policies to assure that our children have the nutrition, health care and educational opportunity to grow into healthy and productive citizens.

• We need to assure that our schools, community colleges and public higher education systems are offering programs that prepare our young people to meet the evolving needs of Maine employers.

• We need to assure that job training is made available to those citizens who have traditionally been left out of the workforce: those with mental and physical disabilities, the elderly, those overcoming addiction, immigrants and those on public assistance who need to become independent.

• We need to address the issues of college debt and housing affordability, and we need to create incentives for our young people to raise their families here in Maine.

Maine has tremendous natural resources, an entrepreneurial tradition and a strong work ethic. We have many of the elements that are needed to fuel our future economic growth. What we’re missing is a plan to help us overcome the serious problems we face. We need to get to work creating one.

The Legislature changes over every two years, so our planning horizon tends to be very short-sighted. The Legislature, preferably in partnership with a forward-thinking governor, needs to establish a mechanism to develop and maintain a comprehensive strategic plan for the state of Maine. We can’t afford to put this off. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.

State Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, represents Cumberland and part of Gray in House District 45.

State Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, represents Cumberland and part of Gray in House District 45.