10 ideas to make Maine a better place to live, work

Maine is really good at talking about what’s wrong with it. It goes something like this:

Maine has an aging population and workforce. In order to reverse the “silver tsunami” it must find a way to not only retain but draw young people from away. At the same time that Maine needs more younger workers, it must also find ways to grow worker productivity to remain competitive. But not enough people are getting post-secondary degrees to meet projected future job needs. Even current college students aren’t as prepared as they could be: Half — yes, half — of Maine’s high school students who enroll in Maine’s community college system require remedial help.

Add to that a couple other real and scary statistics — such as that about one in five children live in poverty in Maine (or one in three in the rural rim counties) — and growing Maine’s economy seems quite daunting, maybe even impossible.

But there are plenty of ideas about how to ensure Maine communities grow and thrive.

Maine leaders in economic development, politics, education and business discussed some of those ideas at a conference at the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday. Called “Solutions for Maine’s Economy,” the BDN-organized event, as part of our MaineFocus initiative, brought together nearly 100 participants to listen to 15 panelists.

Here are some of their ideas about solutions for Maine’s economy:

  • Invest in quality, early childhood education

“Education is the only thing that’s going to lift children out of poverty,” said panelist Sue Mackey Andrews, a baby and toddler expert who served as the executive director of Child Development Services for nearly a decade. University of Maine economics professor Philip Trostel found that if the state invested what amounts to an additional $26,200 per child over a five-year period, the cost would be fully recovered by the time those children turn 14. (For perspective, each year, Maine spends about $64,000 per inmate.)

  • Education efficiency

Maine can’t afford to have costly duplication across its community college and University of Maine systems, said Muskie School public policy professor Charles Colgan. Maine could combine K-12 administration and the community college and University of Maine systems into one organization, and it would still be smaller than some education systems in other states.

“What I just said, of course, is utter heresy,” Colgan joked. “It will never happen, but it’s an idea.”

What if, though, they did more to avoid duplication within their budgets, suggested Ryan Neale, of the Maine Development Foundation. Then they could allocate resources more effectively.

  • Mentoring

One of the biggest complaints from employers is that they can’t find workers who can communicate effectively, think critically or act creatively. Why not provide more role models for children by encouraging more mentoring?

“I keep wondering why there aren’t lines of seniors outside our school buildings, wanting to volunteer,” Mackey Andrews said.

  • More, bigger ventures

Parents and teachers should talk about entrepreneurship early and often, said Tanya Emery, Bangor’s director of community and economic development. Children should know it’s a career choice, just like being a doctor or teacher.

Maine has a good record of entrepreneurship, but those enterprises typically don’t grow much, Colgan said. There could be more meaningful networking opportunities for them to learn how to recruit locally and from away.

  • Entice people who have ideas

Why doesn’t Maine have a private entrepreneurship foundation dedicated to seeding promising startups in the state? said Jess Knox, who founded Olympico Strategies.

  • Reach Maine lovers

Maine should be tapping into what Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, called the “Maine lovers diaspora” — people who love Maine but don’t live here. What is Maine doing to connect with them and draw them here? It needs a campaign strategy, added Knox.

  • Compete, learn

Business plan competitions are an economic development tool. While there have been small competitions throughout Maine, why not put on a statewide search? In addition, why not expand events like Portland Startup Weekend — where people pitch their startup idea and receive peer feedback — to the rest of the state?

  • Centralize, connect

Maine needs a place that centralizes and disseminates information about resources available to startups and businesses, and some way to connect all those enterprises, so they can learn from each other, said James Knight, CEO of Pelletco.

Owners can model businesses that are succeeding. They should know about Inc. 5000 — a list of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S — and then go talk to the Maine businesses on the list to find out how they succeeded, Knox said

  • Go for it

People shouldn’t be afraid to follow their dreams. “People constantly ask, ‘Was it difficult finding money? Is it difficult attracting young talent? … Doesn’t it suck doing business in Lewiston?” said Luke Livingston, who formed Baxter Brewing Company. “The answer is, ‘No,’ ‘No,’ ‘No.’”

He added, “That mentality that is ingrained in the business culture and business acumen in Maine is that we have these hurdles to overcome. They’re a lot shorter than people see them to be.”

  • R&D for everyone

Public investment in research and development is important and needs to be sustained, but R&D must happen at private companies, too, Gooding said. Businesses should be dedicating a percentage of their revenue each year to creating and testing new products that will in turn generate more revenue.

It can also be as simple as talking to customers about their needs and adjusting accordingly, Knight added: “Everybody can do R&D.”

It was a theme of the morning: It takes everyone, not just business or just government, to grow Maine’s economy.

Now, who will put the ideas into practice?

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.