Maine has seen a decline in labor participation since 2000 – its population has remained stagnant for the last 15 years, wages are low overall, youths are increasingly dropping out of the workforce, and the pandemic led to lower levels of labor participation. While 2020-2021 pandemic population growth has led to a lot of optimism, current participation levels still needed to be addressed.
To combat these problems, Gov. Janet Mills and the state legislature earmarked $178 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for workforce development efforts. The money was part of $997 million it received from ARPA’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF), a $350 billion program that provides flexible assistance to states, localities, and tribal governments addressing the economic and public health impacts of COVID-19.
In addition to being a public good, workforce development programs are a low-cost, low-risk strategy to address Maine’s chronic demographic challenge. Research shows that programs like these are a more cost-effective and equitable option than megadeals that put lots of eggs in very few corporate baskets, often with too few strings attached.
Of $178 million allocation, $25 million was used to establish the Maine Career Exploration Program (MCEP), which offers paid work experience and career exploration opportunities for youth and young adults ages 16 through 24 through three different subprograms. Part of the funding will go to Extended Learning Opportunity Programs, which provide educational experiences to students after school and during the summer months. The Maine Department of Education also established a pilot grant program for nonprofit programs that connect youth with career exploration and paid work opportunities. Some funds also went to a work experience program that was established pre-pandemic and prepares high school students for employment and post-secondary educational opportunities.
Another $800,000 is creating career navigation specialist job positions. The State Department of Education will work with local adult education programs to hire specialists to provide unemployed and underemployed individuals with education and career guidance as well as referrals to adult education, skills training, and licensure opportunities.
The largest SLFRF workforce development allocation was $35 million for expanding Maine Community System’s workforce training programs. These tuition-free vocational training and certificate programs are offered for positions in sectors most impacted by pandemic, such as health care, clean energy, manufacturing, hospitality, education, computer technology, and trades. The funds are expected to support 8,500 workers. Since December 2021, 500 students have been supported.
Maine is also dedicated to making sure these programs have their intended impact. The state’s 2022 SLFRF Recovery Plan includes performance indicators and metrics for each program to measure success.
It’s heartening to see Maine using the money toward improving the workforce of tomorrow, preparing a wide range of people, from all ages and socio-economic backgrounds, for jobs in industries where wages are best, and demand will be highest.