We Need to Stop Trying to Be a Cheap Date

WE WON’T ‘ATTRACT’ TOMORROW’S JOBS, WE HAVE TO GROW THEM HERE

When it comes to growing the Maine economy, we’re our own worst enemy. Rather than work together, we spend our time finger-pointing. We attack joblessness with handouts rather than hand-ups. But our biggest weakness is more fundamental. We’ve got an attitude problem.

Our widespread pessimism leads to some crazy ideas. One is that we ought to make ourselves into a cheap date so we can attract companies to come to Maine. Crazy ideas are like eccentric uncles: spend too much time with them and you can forget how out of touch they are.

The idea that we can attract jobs to Maine is the basic framework of most economic thinking in Maine. You hear it in political speeches, Chamber of Commerce gatherings, editorials and even in the local coffee shop. It assumes that big national companies are highly mobile and do comparison shopping when they decide where to locate. In reality, that doesn’t happen much. When it does, it usually involves some automaker fleeing union-held Detroit for the anti-union south.

Those companies aren’t seeking relief from taxes and electricity costs, which they can easily negotiate with state officials hungry for a ribbon-cutting. They’re looking for lower labor costs to drive higher profits, which no politician can deliver.

Of course, there are national companies that come to Maine all the time, like Walmart, Dunkin Donuts and countless other chains. They’re here for the same reason they’re everywhere else. We have people, and people are customers. If they can get some desperate-for-publicity politician to sweeten the pie for them, at our expense, all the better. But they’re coming anyway.

This notion of competing with other states by driving down wages, taxes, utility costs, environmental and safety regulations is a path to destruction. And it can be downright embarrassing watching state officials hawking their wares from every busy street corner. ‘My state is cheap and easy’, they yell. ‘And how about them legs’?

This idea of attacking jobs from away has been with us for a long time, going back to the Civil War and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. That’s when a wave of companies actually did come to Maine, creating thousands of new jobs. Investors in New York and elsewhere took a hard look at where to build their woolen, cotton, leather and paper mills. They decided that Maine was a pretty good place because we had the oil wells of that time, strong rivers that could provide virtually free power to turn their new machinery.

Their actions created a golden era for uneducated workers in Maine, caused migrations from farms to towns and attracted thousands of immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Italy and beyond. Along the way, they also infected us with this notion that the path to salvation was to attract jobs from away.

Here’s a painful reality that we need to confront. We’re not going to attract companies to Maine, in any meaningful way. Our rivers and forests are not what most companies need today. We don’t have a large enough skilled workforce for the economic giants to even look in our direction. We don’t have an academic/industrial complex like Massachusetts or California that are magnets for high-tech firms. And we certainly won’t lower our wages to compete with Alabama, Mexico or China or match their abysmal environmental or safety standards.

What we do have is a great place, an honest hard-working and resourceful people and a reputation for quality and wholesomeness that has been propelling companies like L.L. Bean, Tom’s of Maine, Bath Iron Works, IDEXX, Stonewall Kitchen, WEX and countless others for decades. We’ve got more to do to build on our strengths, of course, particularly in educating ourselves and making health care more affordable. But we’ve got good bones.

Lowering taxes and energy costs are worthy goals. But we shouldn’t do those things for the dream of attracting big companies from away. We should do them to help entrepreneurs and Maine-based businesses grow tomorrow’s jobs.

Businesses like the ones that are now shipping millions of dollars of lobsters to Asia. Or the small farms that are one of the fastest-growing sectors of Maine’s economy. Or the hundreds of new ideas and startups that are sprouting in every far-flung corner of the state.

The idea of attracting jobs to Maine has to give way to a new idea: bootstrapping more jobs here.

Alan Caron in a partner in the strategic consulting firm of Caron and Egan. He can be reached at alancaroninmaine@gmail.com

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