EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was written by Maureen Milliken and published in Mainebiz on Wed., January 8, 2020. It can be read online at https://www.mainebiz.biz/article/five-on-the-future-panel-collaboration-flexibility-keys-to-maine-economic-success. We have reprinted it here for your review and consideration.
Whether it’s real estate, retail or construction, or economic development in general, industry insiders at the Mainebiz “Five on the Future” panel on Tuesday, January 7 agreed that the key to the state’s economic success is collaboration and flexibility.
Some 250 people attended the annual breakfast event, which was keynoted by Jeffrey C. Fuhrer, executive vice president and senior policy advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Fuhrer also moderated a panel that included Heather Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development; Justin Lamontagne, partner with NAI The Dunham Group; Topher Mallory, CEO of Mexicali Blues; and Deirdre Wadsworth, president of Hardypond Construction.
The challenges presented by Maine’s aging workforce and the need to train and attract younger workers dominated the discussion. Panelists also discussed the effects of tariffs and trade policies on business, how to address the state’s housing issues, and other topics in the hour-long discussion.
Workforce collaborations, flexibility…
Lamontagne said that a focus on new technology in the state’s universities and business partnerships is having an impact.
An example, he said, is Navatek, a marine research and manufacturing company that is a real estate client of NAI The Dunham Group. The company, located in Portland, recently opened a second office in Bangor as it attracts young professionals graduating from the University of Maine’s marine engineering program.
He said it’s a public-private partnership success story that’s not only helping the company, but also keeping young workers in Maine. “It’s kind of hard to stay in Maine sometimes if you’re 23, 24 years old,” he said.
Wadsworth said a partnership with New Ventures, a nonprofit training program that introduces girls to jobs in the trades, will have long-term effects. She said young women learn there are well-paying jobs available that they may not have considered, and it also offers a non-traditional learning environment for those who want an alternative to the classroom.
Mallory said unconventional partnerships with other food producers have helped as he launched two new businesses, Split Rock Distilling and Royal Rose Syrups. More than that, collaboration among businesses has helped create a vibrant town center in Newcastle.
Connecting with the workforce…
The panel, responding to questions that also touched on job training and the workforce, said the same collaborative, flexible approach applies.
Johnson said the state has learned a lot from the private sector. “They saw it coming,” she said, of the workforce crisis. Talking to students before they graduate about job opportunities and paying for training are big lessons learned from the private sector. She said another was forging connections with the community college and university systems, which are playing a big role in moving students into jobs.
Johnson noted the state’s goal to bring 75,000 new workers into the state, but said the focus also has to be on what older workers can offer and how to help the state’s 100,000 unemployed residents find a place in the workforce.
Tariffs, trade policies…
Rising costs from federal tariffs and trade policies have had an impact on businesses, from pushing up costs to slowdowns caused by uncertainty on both the production and consumer ends, the panel said.
Mallory said he’s surprised at the disconnect he sees in consumers. “There’s a lack of understanding [that tariffs and trade policies] are going to affect them,” he said.
He said, too, the fact there’s little lead time on wholesale product costs adds to the difficulty. “One container [with the same item] could be five minutes behind the other one, and prices can be 25% different,” he said.
Lamontagne said high construction prices caused in part by tariffs have slowed construction of new buildings, increasing inventory issues. Those looking for industrial or commercial space are sitting back and hoping something will open up, because they don’t trust the uncertainty of new construction.
Wadsworth, too, stressed the uncertainty trade issues are causing, with “crazy” and rapid price hikes. It takes several months to design and get permits for a construction project, and materials prices can change drastically in that time.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s really challenging.”
Those same challenges have had an impact on the already tight housing market in the state.
Wadsworth said that, with high construction costs, it’s hard to make the cost of each unit work with rent restrictions required for affordable housing. Beyond that, “It’s hard to make market-rate work,” she said.
Johnson said, too, that when the state’s bigger population centers are taken out of the mix, there’s property available but it’s often aging or remote, and “doesn’t meet the needs of the workforce.”
She said that housing is still a valuable investment, but the concept of what it is has to evolve.
One thing to make a difference…
During the audience question segment, Paula Mahoney, owner of Words at Work, asked the panel what one those in the audience thing could do to make a difference this year.
“Think about the unconscious narrative” about people you don’t know and who may be different, Fuhrer said. Get to know someone who’s different, and “the narrative will change.”
Lamontagne suggested attending events, talking with other attendees and “getting to know people, meeting and talking to people with an open mind.”
Mallory said that community events, like the now-defunct Old Port Festival, bring people together to enjoy each other’s company and have fun, and are an important part of downtown vitality. He said that type of event is being lost with the current focus on “retail-tainment.”
Wadsworth said that people should “ask the hard questions of each other.” For instance, she said, why isn’t there more gender diversity in the construction business? “By talking to each other, maybe something can come out of it.”
Johnson encouraged those in the room to bring someone into their business to see how it works and help open career options that they may not have considered.
“My parents were public school teachers. I knew I didn’t want to be a school teacher, but I didn’t know what was out there,” she said. Letting students know what’s out there will “keep them from taking the path of least resistance.”