PORTLAND, Maine — The number of annual deaths in Maine has eclipsed the number of births for the first time in recent history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and economists in the state fear the trend will shrink the work force and make doing business here more and more expensive.

The arrival of what’s known as a natural population decrease in Maine doesn’t come as a complete surprise for a state with the oldest and whitest population — two demographic groups that statistically bear the fewest children — of any in the nation.

But Maine is crossing that threshold sooner than economists expected, and the pattern may accelerate what many believe will be a labor crisis in the state. As its glut of baby boomers retire and die, fewer Mainers are born and grow up to replace them in the workplace.

“My own forecast showed that this [natural decrease] would only happen in three or four years,” said Charles Colgan, chairman of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service’s Community Planning and Development Program.

“This is a serious issue for Maine. The population right now is concentrated in the 50-64 age group, and as that group moves into retirement years over the next decade, the vast bulk of people who will need to replace retiring baby boomers will have to come from outside of Maine, ” he said. “The problem is that Maine will be competing for people in that [younger] age group with other New England states and other states in the northeast. It will be a real challenge for us to get people in here to run the work force later this decade and especially into the 2020s.”

From July of 2011 to July of 2012 — the most current annual period available for analysis — Maine saw 12,857 deaths and 12,754 births, said demographer Ben Bolender of the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.

The previous year, from July 2010 to July 2011, the state saw 12,991 deaths and 13,028 births. The same stretch of months from 2009 to 2010 brought 12,869 deaths and 13,302 births to Maine, Bolender said.

Nationwide, the demographer said, America is still seeing a natural population increase — more births than deaths — but the gap is narrowing. Bolender said during the same 2011-2012 period in which Maine saw a natural decrease, the country as a whole saw its natural increase slow to just 1.4 million more births than deaths.

That’s the latest low point in what’s been a steady decline since a 2006-07 high mark of nearly 1.9 million more births than deaths across the U.S.

Where the shift seems to be most pronounced is among non-Hispanic whites, who as a demographic group experienced about 12,400 more deaths than births for the first time in 2011-2012.

National Census numbers released Thursday show that more white people died in the U.S. last year than were born, a downturn that wasn’t expected for another decade, when the census had predicted the population of white Americans would begin to tail off annually.

That Maine’s numbers had a strong correlation makes sense — the state is the whitest in the country with 94.4 percent of its population consisting of non-Hispanic whites.

“The white population, which is 95 percent of Maine, has been getting older and moving out of the childbearing years, and the birth rate for the white population has been declining,” said Colgan. “We have the lowest minority rates in the country, where the birth rates are greater.”

Jonathan Reisman, associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias, said Maine’s rural northern and western counties have been seeing natural population decreases for several years.

Now that pace of decline in what he called the “rim-counties” has overtaken the otherwise reliable natural population increases in Maine’s more urban Cumberland and York counties.

“We’ve reached this crossing point for Maine,” Reisman said. “We’ll have more need for geriatric care and less need for pediatrics. With the financial challenges, our rural hospitals are already facing, I don’t see how we’re going to continue to have 39 hospitals in the state. But if one of our rural hospitals [close] — like in Calais or Machias — I don’t see how we could continue to be a place where people can go.”

And other services will start to suffer.

“We’ll see a big effect on schools,” he continued. “Schools will continue to close, we’ll see consolidation in K-12 administration. We’ll see more and more schools merging. To sustain a population in America today, you need schools and a hospital serving the area.”

Maine’s population is still growing overall — the Census shows a July 2012 population of 1,329,921, up from 1,328,544 in 2011 and 1,327,585 in 2010 — due to the steady migration of new residents from out of state.

But J. Scott Moody, economist and CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said those incoming residents alone can’t be counted on to fill the workforce vacancies left behind by retiring baby boomers, born in the post-World War II era between 1946 and 1964.

“The economic analogy I use is that migration is the short-term business cycle. But your long-term growth is driven by your net natural growth,” Moody said. “Our migration tends to be from the Boston area, and the folks coming here are … older, retiring baby boomers. The type of migration we’re getting in the state isn’t likely to change that long-term pattern [of people leaving the workforce], and in fact may reinforce that long-term pattern.”

Colgan said Maine would “have to bring in people way above the historical trend” from out-of-state in order to make up the difference between the number of people likely to leave the workforce and those being born here and coming of age.

“Historical data and modeling suggest it will be very difficult for us to get in enough [immigrants] to replace the baby boom generation,” Colgan said. “Within the forecast horizon we can see pretty clearly, into the 2020s, there will be two issues. People simply won’t be able to find the workers at all … or in order to find the workers, they’ll have to recruit them from outside of Maine. That will increase the cost of hiring people. We’ll have to be much more competitive in how we compensate people.”

Amanda Rector, Maine’s state economist, suggested in a population outlook report earlier this year that some businesses may simply avoid the state and set up shop where the population is more reliable.

“Business executives look at workforce availability when making plans for the future,” Rector wrote, in part. “In addition to information about the makeup of their current workforce, they look at how many working-age people will be available in the coming years. This information can influence location decisions.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.