Sunday, September 24, 2006

Gazing into Maine's future

This past Thursday and Friday, I had the opportunity to attend The Future of Maine’s Economy Conference, at the Augusta Civic Center. This was the second yearly conference put on by the Maine Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and included a diverse sponsorship that ran the gamut from various State of Maine departments, such as labor, education and economic and community development, to the state’s various quasi-governmental organizations like the workforce development boards, as well as community-based non-profits like the Maine Development Foundation, the Mitchell Research Institute and the Finance Authority of Maine.

The first conference, held last year, developed a theme around the importance of technology and education’s role in the development of the Maine economy. This year, the focus was on workforce development’s role in helping to create a state labor force that can meet the challenges of a 21st century global economy.

Several national speakers were brought in, including Peter Bellis who delivered an excellent talk on the importance of integrating the various players that have important roles in moving the state forward, and the necessity of bringing business into the equation, to respond to needs of both the employer and the workforce filling the growing need for highly skilled workers.

Bellis emphasized the importance of accountability, something that gets a lot of lip service, but rarely is realized. It’s important to make investments in our educational systems and state training programs, but there need to be a rigorous set of uniform standards of measurement, so progress and outcomes can be evaluated.

All the speakers spoke of the importance of lifelong learning, and reforming the current system to make this possible. Regardless of one’s views on globalization, its impossible to deny that the world of work has dramatically changed. The skills of the previous century aren’t enough for the increasing complexity required of even entry level employees.

An example of this is traditional manufacturing. While the tendency is to bemoan the loss of jobs to foreign competitors, in Maine, there is a growing need in skilled manufacturing for workers. Part of this is the age of the manufacturing sector in Maine and elsewhere. This need isn’t driven solely by demographics, however.

Laurie Lachance, who has had the distinction of serving under not one governor, or even two, but has served as the state’s chief economist under three various administrations in Augusta. Anyone who understands the fickle winds that blow through politics can appreciate anyone who possesses the value and the skills that she must possess in order to have a resume worthy of three governors attention, not to mention being able to steer clear of the partisan landmines that can spell disaster for the most capable public servant.

As the state’s economist, Lachance managed economic forecasting and has been aware of the trends that affect Maine. Currently, she is serving as the President and CEO of the Maine Development Association, a highly-regarded non-profit, with a broad mandate of promoting sustainable and sensible development in the state.

Lachance gave one of the more uplifting presentations, as she highlighted the companies and the places across the state that have embraced change and technology and as a result, are experiencing dynamic growth. From companies like Formed Fiber Technologies and Tex Tech Industries, both traditional manufacturing firms, who are moving forward with new processes, to become world leaders in their respective fields. She highlighted some of the developments coming from MESDA, with their proposed software testing lab that’s getting ready to launch in Westbrook.

As CEO of MDF, Lachance recognizes the importance of downtowns in Maine’s future. MDF is getting ready to launch another associate program to complement its Maine Street Maine program. This one will be called Square One and focus on smaller communities and downtowns, with Livermore Falls being the first recipient of development funding.

While many conferences of these types can leave one overloaded with task-driven goals and future prospects, Friday’s opening speaker, Denise Bissonnette, made sure her audience understood that all we do in life, whether working or playing, should have a holistic focus.

Bissonnette, who is a poet at heart, presented a narrative-focused talk on “The Art of Creating Opportunity.” This was delivered in the context of helping some of the state’s job developers create new opportunities for their clients. However, Bissonnette’s stories and ability to turn many tasks upside down, had her audience thinking about new possibilities.

With her focus on entrepreneurial approaches at serving clients and geared towards real job creation and thinking “outside the box,” Bissonnette may have been the most important speaker at the conference. Because the tools and questions she presented are oriented towards engaging the talents, as well as focusing on the aspirations of applicants—what is it that your clients are truly passionate about—her talk spoke to some of the core values and issues that under gird anyone tasked to create meaningful work and jobs that value human beings, putting people before mere profits.

While both Thursday and Friday’s sessions included many of the leaders and others working in Maine’s workforce and economic development communities, the one group that was noticeably absent, was the private sector—the leaders in Maine’s business community. Because being able to target their needs and orient education and training to their needs are tantamount for our future as a state, I was curious why more of them weren’t in attendance. I think that MASCD needs to do a better job publicizing the conference, making a real effort to reach out to Maine's business leaders. For some naysayers of conferences, an obvious response might be that they had “better” things to do, with the connotation being that engaging in a conversation about the future of Maine isn’t important.

There were a smattering of Maine’s business community present and I was pleased to see it. I had the privilege of meeting and having some important and beneficial conversations with a lovely mother and daughter team, who thought it important enough to take two days to sit and understand where Maine is headed. Not only did they soak in what was offered, but they were important participants in many of the breakout discussions that were part of our time in Augusta. I know I learned some valuable things from taking the time to talk with them and find out about their companies.

Maine’s trade association leaders from the marine trades, metal manufacturing and software development were there and actively engaged. With Maine’s award of an important federal grant under the WIRED program, the state has some $15 million dollars available to create some 2,000 new jobs in the area of composites, which are tied to Maine’s history and tradition of boatbuilding. I’ve already had an opportunity to be in some key meetings with some of the movers and shakers that will be rolling out this program and I’m very excited about the possibility for this grant in creating some needed jobs, as well as providing Maine with the chance to become a world leader in the composite industry.

We hear a lot of criticism coming from certain quarters in our state about our current administration and how the governor doesn’t understand the needs of Maine. While I’m not hear to champion party politics, attending this conference provided me with a much better understanding of Maine’s needs and how many of our state’s leaders are moving Maine forward in a new and important direction, one that will help us to be well-positioned to be a leader in areas where Maine has often come up short.

It’s easy to take every opportunity to criticize and insist that one’s own party or candidate would do a better job. It’s an entirely different thing to be proactive and roll up one’s sleeves and understand the issues and actually work towards providing some real solutions. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lot of Maine’s more “reactive” types in attendance, the one’s who think the state’s future depends on a “slash and burn” (can you say, TABOR?) approach to taxation, or awarding lucrative contracts to their firm, instead of the firm of their arch-nemisis.

While I’ve certainly not been shy about criticizing people, companies and issues that I’ve felt were detrimental to the people of Maine, I’ve also made the sacrifice of time that is required to get out into the highways and byways of the state and talk to people, in order to understand the issues and develop a clearer understanding of what they are. Better yet, I've actually worked alongside some grassroots organizations for causes related to affordable housing, homelessness and now, I'm having the opportunity to help in creating jobs that pay a living wage. It's now my "job," but that doesn't lessen the possible impact for good that can occur from this new understanding.

I recognize that some, given more to their ideological allegiance than what's in the best interest of Maine people, would prefer to sit behind their mikes, or in front of a camera, or even type away at their keyboards, tilting at state officials (and painting them as the enemy), constantly lobbing criticism their way, rarely, if ever, offering an alternative. If you want to do that, occasionally, you need to leave your little corner of the world and find out that the solutions to your supposed issues facing the state, are not the ones you’ve imagined in your head, or the convenient set of your favorite talking points, courtesy of your favorite talking head. Solutions tend to be more complex, not always easy to enact and more often, than not, take time to evaluated, better suited to the context of four and eight year cycles, rather than the time frame of sound bites, driven by political agendas.


Anonymous said...

So you think Tabor is a "slash and burn" approach to the states problems. Don't you know Maine is one of the highest taxed states in the country. Tabor will help give the power back to the people instead of having it in the hands of the Baldacci administration.

Jim said...

Yes, Maine's taxes, compared to other states (even our fellow NE states) are high, at least on a per capita basis, but to think that merely "slashing" taxes (as well as a myriad of necessary services) throws the baby out with the bath water, or at least drowns the baby in the bath tub, which come to think about it, a guy who is probably your hero, Grover Norquist, wanted to do with government (in order to reward the wealthiest among us).

Tax policy is complicated, much more complicated than most citizens care to spend understanding it. That's why sloganeering, anger-fueled initiatives, like TABOR, fly with the average citizen, who buys into much of the anti-tax rhetoric, while understanding that TABOR will do more harm, than good.

Here are just a few reasons why Maine's taxes might be higher than some people care for.

*decreased federal dollars means most services in Maine end up being funded by Maine's taxpayers, via our outmoded property tax formula. LD 1 was an attempt, by Governor Baldacci to address this. Opponents claim it doesn't work. The Governor and proponents of LD 1 says we haven't given it enough time to work. It appears that we are moving in the right direction, but TABOR seeks to enact a much more draconian model that will undermine Baldacci's LD 1 and gut essential services. (Baldacci's opponent, the bow-tied and short on details, Chandler Woodcock, has sat in the very legislature that many of his followers love to blame along with the governor, for many years. He seems to be part of the very problem that the TABOR lovers cite, yet they'll vote for TABOR and also vote for this lunkhead of a candidate-go figure.)

*we are a low-wage, service-industry state. Low wages translate into a need for higher than average use of services. Unfortunately, social services cost money.

*Maine's low population density means that in many rural municipalities, providing services cost money, like schools (transportation). Even in larger municipalities, police, teachers and even sewage plant projects, tend to be purchased in whole units, even though the numbers served are much lower than some of the other low-tax states Maine is always being compared to. It's the old case of comparing oranges to apples. Doing that with taxes, via TABOR, is going to cause a world of hurt to some innocent folks.

Rather than blaming taxes as the culprit, an understanding that Maine's economic stagnation is caused by a lack of economic development, which might be driven by lack of skills/education among its aging workforce, as well as lack of R&D dollars spent in the state.

There is a very interesting report that is more nuanced and a bit more involved than the current "cut my taxes fool" mentality of Mary Adams and her clones. The Maine Planning Office, issued an action plan in 2001, called "30 and 1,000," which had as its goal, to raise the percentage of Mainers holding a 4-year college degree, to 30 percent and increasing R&D funding per capita to $1,000, by the year 2,010. We are on the path to reaching this, but TABOR will surely derail these kind of attempts, as well as economomic development programs that will attract the higher wage jobs that Mainers desperately need.

Here is a link to the plan--

30 and 1,000