It’s a common refrain among some politicians: Maine must draw more business to the state. Just as important, however, is the need to also draw educated, future employees. If current demographic trends continue, Maine is estimated to lose 20,000 workers by 2020, making it difficult not only to attract new companies but provide current Maine employers with the workforce they need to succeed.
There are growing businesses in Maine offering well-paying jobs that have to hunt far and wide for qualified workers. One, based in Scarborough, is Fluid Imaging Technologies, which manufactures a first-of-its-kind imaging particle analyzer.
Its FlowCAM was first on the world market to digitally analyze subvisible particles while a sample is moving, as opposed to on a microscope slide. The instrument is used to detect the makeup of things such as chemicals, drinking water, drilling fluids, food — even microscopic industrial diamonds and beer yeast. It’s aided research across the world, from analyzing zooplankton and phytoplankton in southern Bavaria to determining the toxicity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The company was founded in 1999 as a spinoff from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. It’s currently in its fourth location since then; at each one it’s tripled its space, said CEO Kent Peterson.
It has also attracted growing investment. In 2012, the Maine Technology Institute awarded the company a $500,000 development loan. Then, last year it secured $4 million in private equity financing to continue to grow every aspect of the business. That means Fluid Imaging has been aggressively searching for employees. In the past year it has doubled its size, growing to about 40 employees, from 20.
The major hurdle has been to secure workers with a technical bent, Peterson said. For example, he’s currently advertising for two software engineers and a customer support product technician. The company has also searched for programmers, mechanical and electrical engineers, and people well-versed in laboratory practices.
“It’s very difficult to find these kinds of employees. They’re around. They’re available, but the problem is exacerbated because there are other companies doing quite well in southern Maine in our type of market,” he said. So workers may jump from one job to another. While that’s good for the workers and the companies who attract them, it still means there are openings to fill.
“All the companies, including Fluid Imaging, are looking outside the state boundaries to bring people in,” he said.
“We will not continue to innovate and grow unless we find new employees. Period,” he said. “I submit that the same goes for the state.”
Part of attracting employees is building the type of company at which they want to work. Because Fluid Imaging is relatively small, it means “we’re able to do a lot of things together to build camaraderie and a sense of teamwork,” Peterson said.
The company paid for employees to attend Sea Dogs games last summer, for example. It has organized a company overnight rafting trip in northern Maine, held a go-kart competition, and taken a company ice fishing trip. It also holds an annual company volunteer day; last September employees helped out Friends of Casco Bay by cleaning up a local beach.
In addition, the company uses a variety of approaches to reach potential job candidates. It hires interns, attends job fairs, taps into the professional network site Linkedin, leverages employee networking, advertises job openings online, and works with traditional head hunters. Along the way, Peterson talks about the company’s potential for continued growth.
“We’re really educating the market as to the next generation of technology for particle analysis,” he said. “It’s been very gratifying to see how well it’s been accepted and the value proposition validated.”
He has ideas for how Maine can help businesses attract workers. For instance, why doesn’t the state launch an initiative to collaborate with Maine businesses searching for employees from out of state? The businesses would offer a variety of incentives — such as signing bonuses, tuition reimbursement or moving stipends — and the state would act as a type of clearing house for people looking for or considering work in Maine.
“I think Maine has an opportunity to get a big piece of mind share for prospective employees if they put on or facilitate some grandscale employee attraction program. But it would be a collaborative effort with private enterprise,” he said.
It is possible for companies to start, grow and thrive in Maine. “For all intents and purposes, Maine is our geographical epicenter of our worldwide market,” Peterson said.
But to keep them here, and to encourage more businesses to call Maine home, they must be able to attract the right workers at the right time. Indeed, the Maine Development Foundation’s March 2014 Measures of Growth report set a goal for the state to add 45,000 workers by 2020, rather than lose 20,000.
Will it happen? It’s up to Maine’s innovative minds.