Group Looks to Add 10,000 Jobs to Maine’s Economy

Jan 19, 2016

PORTLAND, Maine — A big group of business and policy leaders is launching an ambitious plan to add more than 10,000 high-paying jobs to Maine’s economy by 2025 — potentially many more jobs, according to organizers of the new initiative, called Focus Maine.

The goal is to grow industries in Maine that have the best chance of creating what are called “traded jobs.” That is, jobs that rely on exporting goods or services beyond Maine’s borders. There are alerady a few examples of the type here.

“WEX, IDEXX, Unum, Bean’s — most of their business outside bringing dollars back into the state,” says Michael Dubyak, an executive at WEX, a successful South Portland payment software company. He’s co-chairing Focus Maine, which believes that Maine should radically increase its share of those traded jobs.

“A traded job pays like 50 percebnt more than a local job, it has higher education in terms of employment, it has more full-time employment, it creates 1.6 additional jobs, so very positive in terms of job creation,” he says.

Dubyak’s been working for a year and a half now with Pierce Atwood partner Andrea Cianchette Maker to develop Focus Maine, which now has dozens of banks, policy-wonks, business and education leaders on board. Its first project: a $100,000 survey of the economic landscape by global research firm McKinsey & Co. that identified three key sectors that could be a job-creation jackpot for the state: agriculture, aquaculture and biopharmaceuticals.

At a kickoff press conference Tuesday overlooking Portland’s busy shipping lanes, Cianchette Maker outlined the potential for Maine to significantly boost its agriculture exports. She starts with the drought out West.

“Grocery stores are beginning to think about sourcing their food from the East,” she says, “because we have water. We also have land. We have a relatively large amount of land — it’s relatively inexpensive in comparison to other areas. Agriculture is in sort of a resurgence in Maine, so that’s a wave we want to lend our weight to.”

It helps, she adds, that the global marketplace is increasingly focused on “traceability” of the food chain, while Maine’s lobster industry gives it a leg up in creating a recognizable food brand.

Bill Caron, the CEO of Maine Health, adds that the state’s aquaculture industry is also poised to conquer new markets — if it can grow and harvest seafood that, like lobster, is seen as uniquely valuable when it comes from Maine.

“It’s not going to do us any good to develop a signature industry that some other state had the resources to mimic three years from now,” Caron says.

But, he adds, if penned salmon or oyster operations or seaweed harvests can be nurtured and marketed effectively, they could help counterbalance job losses in other parts of the fishing economy.

“One of the challenges we have here in the state is if wild-caught is going down, which means our fish supplies are going down over time, water temperatures are changing — we’ve got a lot of Mainers who are in an industry today who want to stay in that industry and it’s going away from them,” Caron says. “Maybe it’s a movement to aquaculture from wild-caught that’s really going to be the next piece of growth that we have here.”

The final and perhaps most speculative effort by Focus Maine is to create a robust biopharmaceutical industry in the state. Dubyak says the idea is to poach some business from Boston’s booming, multibillion-dollar biotech cluster.

“The McKinsey work said that those companies would not end up building their development or manufacturing facilities in and around Boston because it’s too expensive,” Dubyak says. “So they are going to look outside of Boston. So with our proximity to Boston, being so close, the question is ‘Why not Maine?’“

That sounds like a good marketing slogan. Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue thought so eight years ago when he used it to promote an economic development plan to the Legislature — which rejected it. But Focus Maine’s organizers say they are going to stay away from Augusta for the time being, instead continuing to develop ideas, support, plan and find ways to educate workers in the needed skills.

One bit of evidence that the effort could have some legs — Focus Maine has already raised $700,000 toward the effort.