AREA — A handful of employment and business experts agree there is a workforce shortage in the area, mostly caused from a disconnect between who’s looking for employment and the skills needed for the jobs available.
At a recent meeting at Community Concepts in Paris, Zakk Maher and Kevin Smart of Community Concepts Finance Corporation met with Diane Peet of Western Maine Community Action and Patti Gray of the Lewiston CareerCenter – which also serves Oxford and Franklin counties – to try and find solutions to the problem.
They all agreed there other factors contributing to the shortage.
“There’s got to be job seekers out there,” Maher said. “Supply and demand are building up in two separate places.”
“The demand is displaced. Where there [are] a lot of unemployed job seekers, there aren’t a lot of jobs,” Gray said. “But in the bigger metropolitan areas, there is a lot of business, so they’re looking for employees, but everyone’s got a job.”
And a barrier for some people living in rural, western Maine is transportation or a willingness to make the commute to the cities, along with housing.
People tell Peet, “I live in Hebron, I live in Sugarloaf, wherever. I don’t want to travel.”
Gray said some residents from Oxford County are willing to travel to Lewiston/Auburn for work, while others are not.
“It’s a challenge and it’s about making choices and … encouraging people that there’s a reason to go,” she said.
Even with the unemployment rate for November remaining flat from October at 4 percent for the state, the people who make up this group usually have the most barriers standing in their way for employment, according to Peet. Barriers include disabilities, child care, lack of skills and/or criminal background.
“When you’re looking at this kind of unemployment rate, you’re dealing with the most in need, the most challenged,” she said.
Peet sees this weekly at the Norway Memorial Library where she is available on Mondays and Wednesdays to help people find jobs, create resumes and navigate the state’s job bank portal.
“These people need such basic, beginning, hands-on, one-on-one training that that’s not even what [Adult Education] is able to do,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how many times they’ve come in and say, ‘I don’t know how to turn on [a computer].’”
Complicating the problem is staff shortage at Western Maine Community Action and the state Career Centers. Peet is a one-woman show and Gray could use more staff.
“You’re seeing customers leaving unsatisfied, frustrated, angered, and the staff is frustrated as well because they’re not offering customer service as good as they want,” Gray said.
Maher suggested having younger people train older folks at these facilities on how to use computers and in return receive volunteer hours for their resume. Peet said they would be able to write recommendations for volunteers and Gray suggested tapping into AARP, SeniorsPlus and possibly other organizations for that kind of help.
Jason Shiers, owner of Pleasant Hill Property Services, reports his company “has been growing strong every year and this is our biggest year yet,” as 2016 was complete with complicated landscaping and hardscaping jobs and custom stone work. And 2017 promises to start off right with the company’s exhibit at the inaugural Maine Flower Shower at Thompson Point in April.
However, 2016 also was one of the most difficult in finding and maintaining qualified employees. Ultimately without growing the core team, it is hard for the company to expand and take on other aspects of its overall mission, Shiers said.
Starting pay with the small Norway business now begins at $15 an hour and can range between $20 and $25 an hour for those with the right skills. The past two years, Shiers relied mostly on Facebook to find employees, which worked well in 2015, but not so much in 2016.
“We’re trying to explore options to garner skilled individuals to become members of a pretty high-end landscaping company that does … work that is exciting, fun and top notch,” he said, adding his company creates natural stone patios, walls and outdoor living areas, among other services. “It’s been hard to keep people because they move elsewhere or they’re head hunted by larger companies. … We can’t promise them full-year work.”
But even so, Shiers said he has projects booked six months in advance.
“What we do is not cheap, but people keep calling. I am already booked for May and June,” Shiers said. “We want to find competent employees who want to join forces with us. They don’t have to invest their money but they have to invest their time.”
Shiers wants to be able to take on more clients and needs qualified individuals so he can run multiple crews.
“It’s too bad we can’t service more people. We want to,” Shiers said. “I would have to grow my business. … I’m finding it hard to because I can’t step away from the job site. … Finding qualified people is a struggle.”
And he has a promise to maintain: “exceeding expectations.” The saying, he noted, comes from his customers and is printed on the sides of all of his vehicles.
“We’re not going to water it down. I’m not going to hire people who aren’t qualified because I need help,” Shiers said, noting he’s built a good reputation in the community since he opened his doors in 2008 and won’t compromise quality work.
This year he hopes to connect with the high school to create a summer internship program in order to bring students into his industry.
“Our goal is to encourage people to stay in the Oxford Hills and understand they can live and work here with good-paying jobs for community-oriented companies like Pleasant Hill,” Shiers said.
Gray and Peet agreed most of the people they deal with seek full-time employment with benefits. People will hold fast to this “until things get very, very desperate. [When the] 26th week of unemployment has come, they become more flexible,” Peet said, adding there are only 26 weeks on unemployment in the state of Maine.
One of those people who’s coming up on his 26th week of unemployment is 65-year-old Michael Taylor of Otisfield. He was laid off in early October 2016 from KBS Building Systems during the annual layoff at the Waterford plant. Before that, he was laid off in May 2016 when Keiser Homes in Oxford shuttered.
“My luck’s good,” Taylor said with a sarcastic smile.
Recently he was in the basement of the Norway Memorial Library with Peet, tapping into her computer skills to help him apply for more jobs. Since October he’s applied for gigs at Reny’s, Hannaford, Roopers Beverage, Thayer Corporation, Advanced Auto Parts and Goodwin Chevrolet, to name a few.
Taylor thought he was down to his last week of unemployment, where he receives $160 a week after taxes. His wife is sick with her third bout of cancer and he wants a job in the area so he can still take care of her. This is the second year in a row they did not have a Christmas, he said.
“I’ve never had to look for work like this in my life,” Taylor said. “Times have changed. It’s not easy anymore.”
He hopes he gets hired back to KBS come spring, but his job isn’t guaranteed. And he is not sure how he is going to buy groceries or take care of his wife properly once unemployment runs out.
“I do a lot of praying,” Taylor said.
One way the state CareerCenters are trying to connect those out of work with employers is through employer-based training.
“KBS wanted specific skills. People were this close but needed one semester class,” Gray said, showing a short space between her thumb and index finger. “We go up to the businesses and say, ‘How do we make the job seekers that are looking for qualified for your jobs?’”
Some ways include getting community college and Adult Education involved and the state paying for training. There is a market for health care and IT jobs and training available for those looking to become certified nursing assistants, welding and carpentry, according to Gray.
“That works well with decent-paying jobs but I don’t think that would work well with $8 retail jobs,” Peet commented. “There is a lot of help for high-pay, high-skill, high-demand jobs. We can do a lot for that. … That is a little bit of a disconnect below $10 or $12 [an hour]. … Our goal is to elevate folks up to a living wage.”
Job fairs are one way to connect employers with job seekers, as the Lewiston CareerCenter has one a month – usually with more than 30 businesses and between 100 and 200 job seekers. Western Maine Community Action has one once a year, usually in the spring, and normally there between 25 and 30 employers and roughly 100 job seekers.
“In the interim … I encourage people like the [Oxford] Casino to come into the library with me and do recruitment right in the library,” Peet said. “It has worked.”
The small group of employment and business specialists agreed there needs to be more done with the Maine JobLink Career Center, which is an online hub for employers and job seekers that contains job postings and training resources. As of Wednesday, Jan. 4, there were 7,550 jobs posted and these usually range from gas attendants to brain surgeons, according to Gray.
“What’s missing … when you get into western Maine and rural Maine, up close to New Hampshire, there is not a lost of postings in those areas,” Maher commented.
He suggested Community Concepts Finance Corp. work closer with employers to utilize JobLink more and write better descriptions of jobs available, along with funneling employers to Western Maine Community Action and the Lewiston CareerCenter.
According to Peet, the November unemployment rate of 4 percent for the state “is not an accurate reflection of all people who could use a job.” The statistic “doesn’t capture 20 somethings home on the couch [or the] 60-year-olds who could use work.”
“The job seekers that don’t get looked at, they get tossed to the side because they don’t have all the job skills, but they’re good employees,” she said. “I think the answer to the problem is people need to be creative and think outside the box.”
This includes employers hiring veterans, seniors willing to work part-time and people with criminal backgrounds.
“Are businesses thinking about rethinking criminal background? Maybe we need to rethink that and give people a chance and open that up again,” Gray said.
Maher said Community Concepts has an ex-offender program that provides federal loans for start up businesses for people with felonies. Gray believes this type of programming and thinking should extend to other businesses and have employers try to work around candidates’ limitations.
New Ventures has a class that is geared toward self-employment for the older crowd and Community Concepts hosts quick start classes to help seniors become self sufficient, Maher said.
While the group doesn’t have all the answers to the workforce shortage problem, they pledged to continue to find solutions.
For more information, contact Community Concepts Finance Corp. at http://ccfcmaine.org/ or 333-6410, Western Maine Community Action at http://wmca.org/ or 743-7763, or the Lewiston CareerCenter at www.mainecareercenter.gov/locations/lewiston.shtml or call 753-9001.