Gov. Janet Mills signed the Maine Space Corp. into law earlier this year, hoping to usher the state into the next age of our space economy.
The historic public-private enterprise promises to generate as many as 5,500 jobs and add more than a billion dollars to the Maine economy over the next 20 years.
Months later, as employers are challenged to fill vacant positions throughout the economy, questions remain. Where will Maine get the human talent to fill those jobs? How will people receive education and training and eventually be recruited, particularly as the working-age population is declining, from 745,000 in 2006 to 703,000 as recently as 2019?
Maine is already struggling to meet the need for skilled labor for current vacancies in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields. These positions pay better than non-STEM jobs, and people with high school diplomas, trade school certificates, and two-year community college degrees can do these jobs.
In 2021, for example, the national median wage for a STEM position was $95,000, more than twice that of a non-STEM job. Moreover, employment in STEM fields is expected to grow by nearly 11% by 2031.
Notably, people without a bachelor’s degree hold six out of 10 STEM jobs in Maine. STEM occupations are also resilient and less susceptible to layoffs when recessions hit.
Demand for skilled labor in STEM will surely increase in the coming years, potentially making recruitment even more difficult.
Planning is crucial for our success. In July, the Maine State Chamber — in partnership with the Maine Development Foundation and Educate Maine — released the latest “Making Maine Work” report, a set of six goals to encourage investment in the state with more than a dozen recommendations and strategies to achieve each goal.
Another report from Science is US, the Maine State Chamber, and the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance details the steps business leaders, government officials, and high school and college administrators must take for Maine to succeed in the STEM economy in decades to come.
Opportunities are flourishing here. It’s now possible for students to remain here after school and enter a job market that will provide pathways to good-paying, fulfilling livelihoods. But we must be diligent in our path forward.
First, Maine must devote adequate financial resources to educate and train STEM workers. State funding for STEM-related initiatives is less than 1% of the gross domestic product. Elsewhere in the region, STEM funding is more than 4% of GDP on average. The disparity limits the state’s ability to prepare its current and future workforce, and puts Maine at a competitive disadvantage among its neighbors.
Second, there must be more significant investment in K-12 mathematics and science education, including support for the professional development of teachers and staff and increased funding for after-school STEM programs like those in Vermont and Pennsylvania. Easy access to broadband internet service for students and workers to benefit from many online STEM-related programs must also be part of the equation.
Third, the business community and secondary and higher education school systems must develop better working relationships to anticipate future STEM workforce needs and create education pathways for all state residents. In addition, the state needs to help develop programs to help current workers in traditional industries retrain for second careers in emerging STEM fields.
There is no doubt about the value of STEM occupations to Maine’s economy and the wealth of opportunities they offer to individuals, families and communities. As of 2017, STEM professions accounted for 58% of state jobs, 61% of GDP, and 63% of labor income, while STEM-supported employment generated $4.7 billion in state and local tax revenues.
Maine’s economic success relies on the coordinated efforts of educators, business owners, and advocates for science and engineering, not to mention current and future policymakers, who must anticipate future workforce needs and take productive steps to meet them.
Dana Connors is president, Maine State Chamber of Commerce in Augusta, and Rachel Kerestes is executive director of Science is US in Washington, D.C.