It’s no secret that Maine is short on workers: The unemployment rate of 3 percent is the lowest in four decades, and warnings about the state’s impending workforce shortage abound.
But there’s a reserve of potential workers that few people talk or even know about.
Around 37,000 Maine men in their prime working years, ages 25 to 54, are neither working nor looking for work, according to data from the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. Hidden from view and not counted in the official unemployment numbers, these men are neither officially employed nor unemployed. They are entirely excluded from employment counts.
If there was ever a time to better understand and re-engage this idle group it would be now, when 111,000 net workers are projected to be lost over the next two decades.
The phenomenon of missing men is relatively new. Forty years ago, only about 5 percent of Maine men in their prime were out of the workforce. But today, 15 percent of Maine men ages 25 to 54 are not working and not looking for work, according to state data. (While men have been leaving the workforce across the United States, the trend is worse in Maine than most other states.)
Yet apart from knowing these disengaged men exist, little else is known about them.
It is a challenging group to understand, because the range of men in this situation is so vast — from stay-at-home dads who choose not to work to laid-off mill workers who never got back in the workforce after a mill closure to men who work under the table and are, therefore, not counted in employment data. Nonetheless, figuring out just who these men are and how to support them could help return meaning to their lives and ensure employers have workers to power Maine’s economy.
Researchers at the state or national level need to invest time to better understand this disconnected group. Key unknowns about them include how many have felonies, the role of addiction, and crucially how these men can be reached and encouraged back into work.
Mainers needn’t wait for research results to take action now, however. Rather than wait for people to come to them, career centers and other entities could do more outreach to this group whose members, it seems, tend not to ask for help.
“They’re seldom their own best advocates,” Carol Sanborn, a paralegal for the law firm of McTeague Higbee, whose workers are represented by the International Union of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told the BDN. “Most of these people don’t have the communication skills. They don’t have any networking. They are set adrift in a world they are not equipped to deal with.”
Stuart MacLeod, 47, has been out of work for most of a decade. With each passing year, it gets harder for him to think about reentering the job market, he said. When the BDN asked him what would most help him get back to work, his answer was simple:
“Just having a mentor. Someone who could boost me up and tell me that I’m not a piece of crap.”
Along with career centers, regular people across Maine can make connections with men such as MacLeod to bring them back into the workforce.