Ask Burnie Gordon, owner of Precision Autobody in Hancock, ME, how he feels about the labor market in the area, and you may get a sardonic chuckle.
“I don’t think there is any labor market. There just is no workforce out there anymore,” Gordon said.
Maine’s unemployment rate fell again in March to 2.7 percent statewide. Nationwide, unemployment is at 4.1 percent, the lowest since 2000. The unemployment rate in Hancock County also decreased, to 4.3 percent.
The number of underemployed people (among them, those who work part-time but want full-time work, those who are overqualified for their positions or those who have not actively looked for a job recently) fell to 7.8 percent, the lowest level since 2001.
This may be good news for job seekers, but employers around the state, and the country, are starting to panic.
“We’re not the only state that’s experiencing this,” said Sen. Brian Langley, who represents Senate District 7 and owns the Union River Lobster Pot restaurant in Ellsworth, ME. “All of New England has a similar problem.”
The issue isn’t confined to New England, and it isn’t projected to get better soon. Declining birth rates, decreasing international migration and an aging population are all expected to contribute to slower labor force expansion and population growth over the next five years, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median age in Hancock County (median meaning half of the population is older, half younger) was 47 in 2015, four years older than the statewide median age and a decade older than the median age nationally.
The worker shortage, said Langley, is particularly acute in health care but is affecting all sectors, from hotels to construction, retail to restaurants.
“Employers can’t find technicians, can’t find body work people or enough electricians, enough plumbers, enough information technology people,” Langley said. “We’re a little bit late to the game. We’ve been talking about a workforce crisis for some time, but now it’s becoming painful.”
“I could feel the workforce changing in 2000,” said Beth Fendl, general manager of Finn’s Restaurant and former owner of the Riverside Cafe. “The shift that happened was people not looking for work like they used to. It used to be you’d put out a help wanted ad and get five or six applications. Now you get three.”