August 22, 2019


A recent legislative task force on out-migration of Maine youth makes several worthwhile observations and recommendations, but raised at least as many questions about what the state hopes to accomplish. Considering the condition of the state and its likely future, lawmakers should further clarify the problem and refine potential solutions.

Three good observations from the task force:

. Nearly all states have the problem of youth flight. “Out-migration by young people often occurs regardless of economic conditions in the home state.”

. Maine has no structure to organize itself, along with the private sector, so that it is effective in addressing issues such as economic and workforce development and out-migration.

. Maine’s higher-education system is not unified and there remains a lack of coordination between it and the business sector.

The task force’s recommendations for action try to solve the problem by changing perceptions, as with a comprehensive marketing campaign for the state, and, more directly, by better aligning higher education with business opportunity or by dropping the in-state price for tuition in the University of Maine System. The link with education is especially important, according to a task force co-chairman, House Speaker Pat Colwell. “The task force found major gaps between the educational institutions preparing young people for careers, and the employers who are seeking to hire them,” he said.

There are several other straightforward recommendations that likely would result in more young people staying here, but it remains unclear that they will solve the problems brought by an aging population that will require more services and a shrinking job base and subsequently a shrinking tax base from which to pay for those services.

The task force was charged with developing “a plan and strategies to retain Maine youth in Maine.” University experts keep saying that isn’t the problem. The problem, instead, is that Maine youth do not return to Maine after having left and that young adults from elsewhere do not come here either. These are related but different problems, and considering the sharp drop in birth rates in Maine, merely trying to keep young people here is likely to be insufficient to meet the state’s demographic challenges.

Second, when the task force points out that most states are experiencing the problem of out-migration, it could have added they are experiencing it despite having tried some of the solutions presented in the task force’s report. Out-migration of rural areas is a nationwide occurrence. This isn’t a state problem; it’s a lifestyle problem: given a choice of urban, semi-urban or rural, high-achieving young adults overwhelmingly follow the jobs, choose the first two and reject the third.

The task force notes several times that Portland ranks 10th nationwide for attracting young adults and professionals. Portland has the same state tax burden as Waterville or Presque Isle; it lives with the same education policies from Augusta. But it also has much more of what young adults want – among other things, a critical mass of other young professionals. It has, in the jargon of the development business, a magnet. A magnet can be industry or a hospital or a solid university with a strong research component.

Evan Richert, of the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine and formerly the head of the State Planning Office, points out that even small communities can develop magnets that will attract young adults. The key is to encourage the kind of entities that are in the knowledge-creation business – state-supported R&D can lead the way.

Like just about anything else worth having, vibrant communities that attract young people to Maine take a lot of work to create, require consistent effort and a fair amount of investment. The task force has done well to return this problem to the public’s attention.

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