At some point in their lives, many Mainers will have worked behind a retail counter or in a kitchen. Some people wrongly see service jobs as a dead-end path, but the service industry creates important opportunities for millions of Americans and tens of thousands of residents in Maine. Retail and restaurant jobs offer critical skills training, experience in customer service and teamwork and opportunities to advance, empowering people across the country with values of hard work and integrity. With five decades of experience in the restaurant industry, I know this firsthand.

Retail trade, including food services and drinking places, is Maine’s top private industry employer, with more than 145,000 people working in the industry, according to the National Retail Federation. And the National Restaurant Association recently projected that Maine’s restaurant and foodservice jobs would grow by 7.6 percent in the next 10 years. Despite these impressive numbers, our industry often gets overlooked in all it does to support the local economy. Instead, many take the industry for granted. This is a tragedy. The reality is that millions of people find opportunities in the service sector to start and grow their careers, which contributes to a stronger economy.

In fact, roughly half of all Americans have worked in a restaurant, and 59 percent have worked in retail at some point in their lives. Like so many people in this country, I started in the service industry, working as an employee in my father’s department store. Retailing was the lifeblood of my family for generations, and it was one of those businesses in which the whole family literally worked. Not only was the experience fun, but I also learned early on that it put a few bucks in a kid’s pocket, which never hurt. I always found it to be noble and rewarding work, and it was my pleasure to join the business as soon as I could reach the cash register.

While some wrongly see service jobs as a dead-end path, they are actually just the opposite. As I celebrate my 50th year in the restaurant industry, I can attest to the fact that it can be a great place to establish a career. I’ve spent nearly my whole professional life in restaurants, beginning my work in food service as a salad cutter while I was a freshman at the University of Maine in Orono, climbing the ladder to restaurant owner and operator for 30 years, and eventually advancing to my current role as director of operations for Governor’s Restaurants.

Restaurants and retail businesses do far more than create jobs; they also offer critical training and a chance to gain professional skills that are marketable in any field. As a matter of fact, 71 percent of hiring managers say retail provides employees with foundational skills and experience that are transferable to other industries and recommend that employees include retail on their resumes. Additionally, 97 percent of managers say they have advanced to a higher paying job within the restaurant industry.

During my work as an owner and operator, I’ve seen the positive influence that our restaurants have had on thousands of team members as they found their first job, advanced to other fields or stayed to establish careers within the industry. Many former employees moved on to become teachers, store clerks and mechanics. One or two of them went on to become doctors, and another is a long-distance pilot for an international airline. Although some moved on to these other lines of work, many team members found restaurants to be their industry of choice and still work in them today.

Looking back on my experience in the service sector, I’m thankful for all I have learned in retail and restaurants, and I’m proud that our industry continues to be the cornerstone of our communities. As we move forward, I’m hopeful 2017 will bring even more opportunities for Americans and Mainers to work in restaurant and retail to start, advance and train for a successful career.

Mike Carney is the director of operations for Governor’s Restaurants. He lives in Lincoln.