Portland business leaders optimistic, but need tech-savvy workers

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PORTLAND — After earning a high rank in a Forbes magazine employment survey last week, city officials and business leaders are saying the future is bright for job-seekers in greater Portland.

Forbes called the Portland-South Portland-Biddeford region the sixth best place for jobs in the country this spring, based on a survey of more than 18,000 employers by the Manpower staffing agency.

In Forbes’ listing, greater Portland came in ahead of cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Denver, Colo., with 19 percent of responding employers expecting to add staff. Greenville-Mauldin-Easley, S.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., tied for first with a 24 percent net employment outlook.

After Forbes named Maine the worst state in the country to do business for the second year in a row, Portland officials were anxious to point out the city’s high ranking in the new report.

“While the impact of the country’s recession is not fully behind us, making Forbes top 10 list for employment opportunity is good news not just for Portland but for the state as a whole,” Mayor Michael Brennan said in a press release distributed on Wednesday, March 21.

Area business leaders and economists supported the sunny outlook for the local economy and job market. Even Charles Colgan, a University of Southern Maine economist who earlier this year dourly predicted the state’s economic recovery is years away, said he is cautiously willing to upgrade his assessment.

“I would say that the national employment picture has been consistently above what I was forecasting,” Colgan said. The Forbes ranking is “a positive sign” that Maine’s economy is part of the broader upward trend, he said.

But as far as the average job seeker is concerned, there are a couple of catches.

To start, the Manpower study is in no way an indicator of the strength of the actual economy – job outlook, as a statistic, is simply based on the number of companies that say that they are expecting to hire in coming months. It isn’t based on how many people, or positions, each company expects to pick up or drop.

“You could have a lot of companies looking to hire just one person and one company looking to lay off 100 people, and their measurement would still be terrific,” Colgan said. “It doesn’t predict how many jobs will be created.”

In each of the past two years, he said, the economy has started strongly before dropping off precipitously in the second quarter. The Forbes list is an early sign that 2012 may be better than 2011, he said, and some of the industries that the Manpower survey said are set for the greatest growth this spring – hospitality and leisure, and professional business services – are consistent with Portland’s current market developments, he said.

But “I have not seen sufficient evidence that that national economy is spilling over to Maine’s,” Colgan said.

The ranking “says more about the sample and the optimism of the sample” than the actual economy, he said.

That sense of optimism, however, is obvious to some business leaders.

“I feel much better heading into the spring and summer this year than in 2010 or 2011, said Larry Wold, TD Bank’s market president for Maine. In past years, companies “were hiring or expanding very reluctantly, and I don’t see that today.”

Businesses are acting to grow and expand with more confidence this year, Wold said, although that confidence is not yet “exuberant.”

Laura Thibodea, president of Portland-based Springborn Staffing, said their business “is picking up” and there are more calls to fill temp-to-hire positions.

“Is there a good job market in Portland right now for the job seeker?” Thibodeau said. “Absolutely. If someone wants to get a job, they can move up here” and within three to six months, “they’ll get a very good job and live in one of the best places in the country.”

But then there’s the second catch for Portland, and Maine job seekers.

The available positions continue to be “for the individual job seeker who has an established niche and established skill set,” usually in the technology or IT field, Thibodeau said.

Where some area companies are experiencing sustained growth and adding staff, the challenge comes less from the stagnant economy and more from the void of appropriately skilled workers.

Envirologix, a Portland company that manufactures test kits that identify genetically modified organisms in the food supply chain, is on pace to grow for the next several years, albeit conservatively, human resources manager Kathy Brooks said.

Envirologix is currently looking for “a couple of scientists,” and there are other southern Maine biotech firms looking to hire these days as well, she said.

Another local technology-based firm, the software company Kepware, has kept up a growth rate of about 35 percent annually for most of the last decade despite the recession, Chairman Corson Ellis said. The company has more than 60 employees now, and “I’m sure we expect to add at least 10 this year,” he said.

“Portland is a fabulous place to do business and there’s only one problem,” he said. ” … The number of engineers graduating from the university. It’s not enough to supply even the tech companies that exist right now.”

For the industry to be sustainable and attract new companies, he said, Maine universities would need to triple the number of graduates with engineering degrees.

“Tech companies move to where the talent is. They move to where there are smart engineers,” Ellis said. “If Maine doesn’t have those people, they won’t move here.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @ACullenFore.