Tomorrow, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics will release its monthly state-by-state jobs and employment report. While the data are subject to revision and should be viewed with some skepticism, they help paint a picture of how Maine’s employment situation stacks up relative to other states.
In all likelihood, the story will remain much the same as it has been in recent months. Maine’s unemployment rate will likely tick downward, along with most other states. Maine probably added jobs from April to May, and the percentage of the population that is employed will continue to be higher than in most states. The Governor’s office and his allies will tout these findings and claim that they prove his economic policies are succeeding.
But on closer examination it is clear that not all is well for Maine workers and job-seekers:
- Employment gains are not evenly distributed around the state. Unemployment in Maine’s urban areas is well below the national average, while rural Maine continues to languish.
- More jobs are a good thing, but Maine has added them at a much slower pace than other states. Maine is one of only five states that have recovered fewer than 50 percent of the jobs lost during the recession. The other states are Mississippi, Alabama, New Jersey, and New Mexico.
- The relatively high percentage of Maine’s population that is employed is a good thing, but that figure masks the fact that older workers and workers who are employed only part-time but want full-time work are driving this trend. Maine’s hard-working 55-and-older population and large number of dedicated but underemployed part-time workers are why our employment rate is relatively higher than in other states. Employment levels for prime working age Maine adults – those between 25 and 55 who are most likely to be supporting families with children– have barely improved through 2013.
Bottom line: it’s too soon for victory laps. Maine’s economy continues to under-perform compared to most other states. The number and quality of jobs Maine needs to create real, broadly shared prosperity remains daunting. We’re approximately 15,000 jobs below our pre-recession peak and need to add a total of 32,000 jobs to keep pace with population growth. Arguably, we must attribute many of the improvements in Maine’s economy to improvements in the national economy. We can also link the fact that we continue to fall short – especially in terms of job growth and particularly in rural Maine –to some of the LePage administration’s ill-conceived policy choices. For example, Maine health care jobs are at risk, due in part to the refusal by the Governor and his allies to accept federal funds and increase health care access for tens of thousands of Mainers. The Governor’s refusal to issue bonds or to do so in a timely manner has left thousands of potential jobs on the table, and added millions of dollars in costs to ongoing projects. Funding cuts at the state level have resulted in pink slips for teachers, police officers, and state employees.
While the LePage administration will likely use tomorrow’s jobs report to tout its performance, putting the jobs numbers in context reveals the significant challenges that Maine workers still face and the long road ahead even five years since the official end of the Great Recession.