March 26, 2013

Majority Leader Rep. Seth Berry wants to help jobs grow as he and others on the bipartisan workforce committee look to improve higher education, Maine’s downtown communities and small business opportunities. Photo by Ramona du Houx

While much of the country has begun to emerge from the Great Recession, Maine ranks 45th in job creation, and more than 50,000 Mainers remain unemployed. In 2011, Maine was the only state in New England whose economy shrank, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Maine is one of only three states nationwide in 2012 whose revenues were below estimates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

To help address the situation, the President of the Senate, Justin Alfond, and the Speaker of the House, Mark Eves, created the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, with an emphasis on workforce development, so jobs can be created and filled by skilled workers in Maine.

“A number of people have expressed that they are very appreciative of the Legislature for taking on the issue. Folks are eager and determined to help. It’s a great opportunity for bipartisan collaboration here and real results,” said Rep. Seth Berry, the House chair on the bipartisan committee. “We’re working together to take the right actions now to move Maine’s economy forward, both in the short and long term. We will strengthen Maine’s economic future by strengthening our incumbent workforce and by making our downtowns and main streets more vibrant, so that they are better engines of economic activity.”

832383355a011891-workers-300x222Skilled workers would be officially credited with their expertise so any Maine company can employ them. photo by Ramona du Houx
Maine has almost 142,000 small businesses, according to federal data; 95 percent of them employ fewer than 50 people.

“And to strengthen our small businesses, we are going to explore specific ways to lower small businesses’ costs and help them compete in today’s economy, so they can grow,” said Berry.

The committee meets every Monday and Friday in Augusta and plans several regional panel discussions around the State. In their first regional forum, they visited the Bangor region, holding a panel discussion where they heard from economic development, workforce, and business leaders. They also toured the University of Maine’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, which helps innovators develop prototypes and commercialize products.

“They can take an idea from soup to nuts – from concept all the way to commercialization and marketing. They are doing phenomenal work,” said Berry. “What’s happening in the Bangor area is inspiring.”

The committee just visited Belfast and plans to go to other communities in Southern Maine, and the Western Mountains.

“The work of the committee goes beyond the policies we will put in place and the systems we hope to strengthen,” continued Berry. “In a larger sense, the committee is about building on Maine’s strengths and bringing attention to those strengths. Maine is such a land of opportunity, if we look at it in the right way. We’re hearing from the business sector, from workers, from everyone that comes before the committee, that there are tremendous things already going on in Maine. All we need to do is connect the dots to help strengthen it. To a great extent this committee also serves as a platform to broadcast that good news.”

There are three phases to the plan that will see legislation put forward this year and next. The first phase is workforce training; the second is revitalization of the state’s downtowns and Main Streets, as economic hubs, and the third is providing additional support for small-business owners and entrepreneurs.

“I’m hoping the committee will choose a bold and measurable vision for ourselves of where we would like to be in ten years from now, so we can focus our work and make sure we are thinking of the long-term goal, as we put these short-term pieces into place,” said Berry.

“We are in the first phase, which I expect will be the biggest component. We have proposed a twelve-point plan in new investments for workforce development. In the second phase we will dive into downtowns and finally finish with small-business issues. With each phase, we will start with a lot of listening to leaders in every field and the general public, then move to the committee work and reporting to the Legislature. We will also have relevant bills for all the phases, where the public can comment on these pieces of legislation during public hearings.”

A concern the committee has heard is the lack of coordination between entities that work on the same jobs issues.

“There is a need to make sure all our workforce development efforts are talking to one another. We have community colleges, universities, career centers, adult education systems; all of them have a specific role to play. If they systematize, with our help, more people will be helped,” said Berry. “For example, we want to ensure that every credit at community colleges or university is transferable to another level, or to another campus.”

“In the trades, there are certificates that are awarded that we want to make transferable. For example, say you work at Cianbro and learn to be a tinsmith, but suddenly you find yourself laid off, so you apply for work at Bath Iron Works. But BIW may not recognize your certificate as valid. Or you may have learned the skills, but not have a certificate to show for it. We want to make sure that a learned skill like being a tinsmith is recognized universally in Maine,” said Berry.

Currently, the U.S. is tenth globally in college degree attainment, with 41 percent of adults earning a bachelor’s degree. According to the 2010 census, only 26.8 percent of people living in Maine have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that during the Great Recession people without any college education lost millions of jobs; many are still unemployed. People with a bachelor’s degree make 84 percent more over a lifetime than high school graduates. On average, a doctoral degree-holder will earn $3.3 million over a lifetime, compared to $2.3 million for a college graduate and $1.3 million for those with a high school diploma.

“We know that there are 200,000 people in Maine that have some college but have not completed a college degree,” said Berry. “Then there is another sector of the adult workforce that have some education but might need additional help to get up to speed to be reemployed in a specific area or to be employed in a higher-wage job, where they can realize their potential more fully.”

The committee is looking into ways to make sure qualified workers are given life-experience college credits, as well as ways to make it easier for some to finish earning a degree.

Then there is a skills gap, where over 4,000 jobs will remain unfilled by 2018 if no action is taken.

“We need to fill the gap. We need more people with college degrees, and we need more folks in the trades — to realize their potential. The more that people can see a career path, an educational path, in Maine, the more they will stay,” said Berry.

A report published in 2011 by Southern Maine Community College estimates there will be a shortfall of 977 computer science and IT professionals by 2018. Only 39 percent of those jobs would be filled at the current rate of graduates. The same study also projected shortages of skilled workers in precision manufacturing, based on current economic and educational trends.

“We have a number of high-growth fields, where we expect to have positions to fill in the near future, but our current populations can’t fill them. We need to attract new Mainers,” said Berry. “For a high-tech company looking to expand, it’s hard to find workers with the right backgrounds in science, math, engineering, and technology. While companies do find that they can attract some people to Maine — too many graduates just out of college find our downtowns just don’t have the lifestyle that they had hoped for.”
That’s another reason the committee is focusing on helping Maine’s downtowns.

“While our historic mills and historic downtowns have a lot to offer, we need to build on what we already have accomplished, making our downtowns become more attractive,” said Berry. “For example, in my area Richmond shows the successes of the recent past that we can build on.”

The Majority Leader of the House also works as vice-president for international development at Kennebec River Biosciences in Richmond.

“We have clients all over the world for our high-tech biosciences services and products. We’ve been a diagnostic company for aquaculture, making sure that fish and shellfish are healthy, and now we are starting to manufacture vaccines for the aquaculture sector as well as doing other contract manufacturing and contract research,” he said. “We are also a product of a lot of investments made in the bioscience and aquaculture sectors at the University of Maine. Most of our lab employees and management hold either a graduate or undergraduate degree from UMaine.”

During the Baldacci administration, voter-approved bonds in research and development infused needed investments into the University of Maine and other educational institutions, enabling them to transform innovations and to make discoveries that Maine companies have commercialized. The bonds also funded the Maine Technology Institute Asset Fund (MTAF) programs, to help new businesses that work in one of the four identified growth sectors of Maine’s economy. Aquaculture is one of those sectors. Kennebec River Biosciences partnered with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay for a successful MTAF grant.

“Aquaculture is more than half of the fish consumed globally, with an eleven-percent growth rate, while wild-caught is growing at a one-percent rate. Maine is positioned to be at the forefront of that growth; it’s exciting,” said Berry. “Our business would not exist if it were not for those bond investments. We now have the ability to grow our business and others like ours.”

An international bioscience business could locate anywhere.

“We started out in Richmond, but as we grew the CEO began to consider other areas,” said Berry. Both the downtown and waterfront were rundown — until the Baldacci administration, Legislature, and voters approved more bonds to help.

The committee is looking into how to help those employed in the trades reach their potential.

“The resulting improvements to the downtown and to the main street are hard to put a concrete value on. It cost money to build the river walk, improve the façades and waterfront improvements. The state and town worked in partnership and made the right investments. Now, we can walk to the pub or get fish and chips. We could visit an art gallery, go to the café, or to the beautiful waterfront,” said Berry. “It is a more attractive place to live, work, and play, and as a result more businesses have chosen to move there. Our own business has chosen not only to stay in Richmond, but has bought the two buildings next door. We’re tripling our work space, and will be hiring many new employees.”

The committee will consider bonds.

“A major role of the public sector is to partner with the private sector and move the entire Maine economy forward,” said Berry. “If you put the public and private sectors together and they do what they do best, there is really nothing that can’t be done.”

Berry has served on the Taxation Committee, as Assistant Majority Leader, and on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

Berry holds a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in Columbia University. He taught in New York City public schools and gave graduate-level courses through Lehman College. He returned to home to Bowdoinham in 2000 and taught public school in Topsham as well as graduate-level courses through the University of Southern Maine. He enjoys gardening and cutting his own firewood in Bowdoinham, where he lives with his wife, Adelaida Gaviria and two children.

The Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future proposed bill outlines a 12-point plan, which represents $11M in new investments for work force development:

• Part A: Create a seamless credit transfer system between the UMaine System and Maine Community College System. Require higher education leaders to develop a common course numbering system. Cost: None.

• Part B: Fund four new degree programs at the Maine Community College System. Cost: $320,000 per year of biennium budget, for a total of $640,000.

• Part C: Provide one-time $2.3 million appropriation to the UMaine System to match $2.3 million in private funding from UMS, to establish a scholarship program to help adults with some prior education complete their degrees. Cost: $2.3 million.

• Part D: Establish a 19-member Task Force on Adult Learners, to focus on helping adults with some post-secondary education to complete a degree or professional certificate. Cost: Compensation for members.

• Part E: Provide funding to the Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community to develop and coordinate work force development training and services statewide. This will provide classes for an additional 300 adults annually. Cost: $300,000 each year of biennium budget. Total: $600,000.

• Part F: Provide $200,000 in additional funding for Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, to be matched by funding from the business community. This will support JMG in providing professional development in 50 high schools. Cost: $100,000 each year of the biennium budget. Cost: $200,000

• Part G: Provide additional funding to the Maine Community College System for the Maine Quality Centers program. This will provide additional training for an estimated 500 employees of existing businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Larger businesses can take part if they match 50 percent of the training cost. Cost: $125,000 each year of the biennium budget. Cost: $250,000

• Part H: Requires the election of members of career and technical education regional cooperative boards. Cost: None.

• Part I: Provide the Department of Labor with $1.16 million for the Maine Apprenticeship Program. Cost: $575,000 in the first year of the biennium budget, $590,000 in the second. Total: $1.16 million.

• Part J: Provide funding to establish the Maine Industry Partnerships initiative within the Department of Labor. The department would track and publish high priority occupations, identify training needs, align resources between departments and employers. Creates a committee to advise the department and the State Workforce Board. Provides staffing assistance to businesses and works with various state departments to develop job training and education curriculum to bolster worker skills. Cost: $1 million in each year of the biennium budget. Total: $2 million.

• Part K: Creates the Maine Skills Academy and establishes a 14-member board. The academy would evaluate and validate various forms of skills and qualifications a worker earns after certification or a degree program, providing a basis for a “skills resume” or “lifetime skills account” that lists verified training and skills. Cost: None.

• Part L: Provide funding to the Maine Community College System to reduce waiting lists. Priority is given to reducing backlogs at Southern Maine Community College and York County Community College. Cost: $2 million in each year of the biennium budget. Total: $4 million.

• Part M: Require the Education Coordinating Committee, comprising higher education leaders, to meet quarterly, and expands its members to include representatives from education organizations and associations. Cost: None.