How The UMaine System Is Trying To Keep Young, Skilled Workers In State

Oct 27, 2017

For years, businesses in Maine have feared the coming of the “silver tsunami,” when thousands of baby boomers are projected to leave the workforce, expected to take place over the next few decades.

One strategy the state is using to minimize the effect on future labor supplies begins in college. The plans are designed to keep more students in Maine after graduation and move them into those unfilled jobs.

Philip Parent smiles as he tinkers with tiny metal weights and force tables in an introductory physics class. The first-year student at the University of Maine at Machias says he always loved this stuff, ever since his dad took him to his workplace — a giant airplane hanger.

“My brother and I would go to the hangars and see the helicopters. Sit in the little cockpits. And it was life changing,” he says. “If you want to be an engineer, and see all these functions, going, ‘Oh, what does this do?’“

Yet Parent’s dream of studying engineering in college nearly fell apart earlier this spring. He had set his sights on the University of Maine in Orono. But by the time his application went through, he says all the spots in the school’s engineering program had filled up.

Parent wasn’t sure what to do next.

“My teachers in high school, my friends were asking, ‘What are you going to do? Are you taking a gap year?’” he says.

About a month later, though, a university counselor called Parent to offer him a new option. He could go to UMM instead, then transfer back to Orono a few semesters later with enough credits to eventually get that engineering degree.

“And so far I really like it here,” he says. “The classes they geared for me, they’re nice [prerequisites]. You know, standard classes going into Orono.”

UMaine officials say they hope that this kind of collaborative effort among the state’s seven public universities will help keep more students like Parent in Maine.

"How do we get someone in Portland to contribute to an economic development opportunity in Aroostook County?"
— James Page,
University of Maine System chancellor

But they’ve got a large challenge ahead of them, because across New England, baby boomers are beginning to age out of the workforce and there are relatively few young workers to take their place.

State labor economist Glenn Mills says to break even, Maine will need to fill in a gap of up to 7,000 workers every year.

“We can only offset that if we can entice a lot of people to move into the state,” he says. “Younger people.”

The other challenge, analysts say, will be to make sure those skilled workers are spread out, and not just in and around Portland. That’s where the collaboration comes in.

In an effort to address the issue, the UMaine system launched what it called the One University initiative a few years ago. The idea is to place all of the state’s university campuses together as one financial structure.

Part of the reason was to help turn around a budget that was in the red. But University of Maine System Chancellor James Page says he also hopes it will remove geographic barriers and encourage collaboration with Maine businesses.

Page wants more students, from Farmington all the way to Machias, to train for jobs in targeted, high-demand industries such as computer science and nursing.

“One University is a response to that challenge,” he says. “How do we get someone in Portland to contribute to an economic development opportunity in Aroostook County?”

The system reported a 2 percent jump in enrollment last fall, but almost all of that undergrad growth is still coming from out-of-state. And experts say that recruiting new undergrads is only one step to get more workers into Maine.

John Dorrer, a consultant and strategist for the Maine Community College System, says the state must also find ways to get more adults into training and into college.

“These are folks who need lots of help with bringing their basic skills up, bringing their employability skills along, and their technical skills to fit what the labor market is looking for,” he says.

The university says it’s aware of the challenge and is investing in alternative pathways too, such as online degrees and student outreach centers in Rumford, Millinocket and other rural communities.

Some officials say they’re encouraged by the progress they’ve witnessed. William Otto, a science department chair at UMM, says he has already seen it make a difference for engineering students who may otherwise have left the state.

“I don’t think any of them would be in Maine taking classes,” he says. “And if they’re not graduating from Maine, they’re probably looking for engineering jobs out there. So my biggest hope is we’ll serve students in our region better, and keep more students here in Maine when they graduate.”

It’s something that businesses are hoping for, too — to make sure they’ll have enough workers in 10 or 20 years.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.