The 21st annual Leadership Summit prioritizes talent, innovation, and critical support
For the past 21 years, the Maine State Chamber’s annual Leadership Summit has provided board members and business leaders an opportunity to discuss critical public policy issues with key public officials from both sides of the aisle, as well as with administrators and representatives of the executive branch. Again this year, the Chamber’s board of directors and key business leaders gathered with legislative leaders and members of the Mills administration on Thursday and Friday, February 6 and 7, at Sunday River with the shared goal of finding ways to attracting and building talent, fostering innovation, and the building the critical support tools necessary to achieve the goals laid out in Governor Mills’ recently-released 10-year Economic Development Strategy for Maine.
The Leadership Summit is very popular each year, and despite the challenging weather on both Thursday and Friday, this year’s event was especially so. Nearly 125 hardy participants gathered to discuss policy ideas and cooperative strategies to achieve the three main goals of the 10-year plan: increasing the average annual wage by 10%, increasing the value of what we sell by 10%, and attracting 75,000 new workers to Maine.
After the opening reception and dinner on Thursday evening, representatives of each of the four caucuses – House Majority Leader Matt Moonen (D-Portland), Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow (R-Lincoln), Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Kennebec) and Rep. Bruce Bickford (R-Auburn) – discussed how the legislature could find commonalities in achieving the plan’s goals. From that spirited discussion, it was clear that each caucus had a different set of priorities and yardsticks with which to measure the plan’s success and outcomes.
The long-standing tradition of roundtable breakout sessions continued Friday morning. Three breakout sessions were convened to focus the themes of how to build talent, how to encourage and foster innovation, and the necessity to provide critical support for all businesses at all stages of their life cycles. Each of the 45-minute sessions resulted in thoughtful and meaningful dialogue between business leaders and policymakers that hopefully will help shape the discussions in the Statehouse this session and beyond, as the public and private sectors partner to achieve the goals of the 10-year plan.
Breakout Sessions: Building Talent…
Facilitated by Clifton Greim of Harriman Associates and Megan Diver of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the “talent” session discussed the Governor’s Economic Plan envisioning a robust economy with strong economic growth, dependent upon the State’s talent and the skills of Maine’s workforce. It was discussed in great depth during this breakout that Maine must attract, build, and retain local talent and recruit those who don’t live here the desire to live here. Many companies in attendance spoke to the different employer programs that their companies participate in locally, ranging from on-the-job training to internships and apprenticeships. Many Maine businesses partner with Maine colleges as well.
It was determined that one of the most useful tools to Maine’s emerging talent and for employers may be a connected online platform. Employers present expressed the concern that there are so many different workforce programs happening throughout the State, combined with individual employers doing a variety of their own things, that Maine’s talent and workforce pool needs a place to find access to all of these things in one place. In other words, an online connection platform that brings stakeholders together: student and adult talent, technical programs, universities, small businesses, large businesses, organizations and government agencies.
Immigration was also discussed – and the fact that Maine needs to create an easier pathway into the workforce for those coming to Maine from other countries. Unfortunately, much of this is controlled at the federal level, but there are some things that Maine can do, such as additional ESL funding, especially in communities experiencing high immigrant populations.
Breakout Sessions: Providing Critical Support for all Businesses at all Stages…
Facilitated by Larry Wold of TD Bank and Linda Caprara of the Maine State Chamber, the critical support session focused on three areas – broadband, the Maine Opportunity Tax Credit, and infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the broadband discussion centered around the lack of coverage in rural parts of the state. The group acknowledged that this problem has been around for quite some time, without resolution. It appears that the infrastructure and mechanics to expand coverage is in place; however, the return on capital to do the so-called “last mile” continues to haunt the solution. Attendees believe this needs to be addressed, as the lack of connectivity prevents small business expansion into rural areas of the state. The group discussed the new nano satellites that are coming to market now, and how they may hold some hope to assist with the issue. However, in the end, the group agreed that there needs to be more focus on getting something done to solve the problem, rather than continuing to just talk about it.
The various groups discussed using the Maine Opportunity Tax Credit as a means of attracting more talent to the state, which ties into the overall strategic plan. Employers acknowledged that Maine’s credit is difficult to navigate and needs to be simplified, as well as expanded (funding increased) and re-worked. The credit also needs to be marketed properly so more companies will take advantage of it and more young graduates will move to Maine to find work, using the credit as a way to help pay down student debt.
Lastly, attendees discussed the need for infrastructure – primarily roads and bridges – to be addressed throughout Maine, particularly northern Maine. Getting products to market is a continual problem. Everyone agreed that the state’s bridges, roads, and infrastructure are all in desperate need of repair, and there is never enough funding to complete these tasks. One of the solutions talked about was increasing the gas tax to pay for infrastructure improvements. They agreed that, while not politically palatable, it should be considered because it spreads the burden around.
Breakout Sessions: Encouraging and Fostering Innovation…
Facilitated by LuAnn Ballesteros of The Jackson Laboratory and Ben Gilman of the Maine State Chamber, the innovation breakouts discussed a wide range of topics focusing on how innovation can move Maine’s economy forward to help achieve the goals within the strategic plan. More than 50% of Maine’s economic growth comes from innovation through R&D investment (public and private), technological advancements in manufacturing, the digital economy, and progress in specific industries such as aquaculture and forest products. One of the key thoughts that recurred during these sessions was that innovation means change in our economy, and since change can be difficult at times, it can bring out opposition to innovation. There needs to be a better understanding of what innovation is and what it truly means for economic growth among the citizens of Maine. There was significant discussion surrounding the need for the state to invest more via R&D bonding and the Maine Technology Institute. The discussion was productive and well-received by everyone in attendance
The success of the 2020 Leadership Summit is centered on the highly-engaged participation of legislators, cabinet officials, and leadership. In addition to those on Thursday’s legislative leadership panel, legislators from key joint standing committees and administrators from critical departments were also in attendance, including: