Job seekers came out to job fair held by the Maine Department of Labor on Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Bangor Mall. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine has nearly recovered jobs lost early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was a marked shift away from health care and government employment to industries including construction and business services.

About three-quarters of 90,000 people who received unemployment benefits returned to work in the final three months of 2021, but 16 percent of them took different jobs or ended up in different fields, according to Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

“There has been a recovery of jobs close to where we were in 2019,” Mark McInerney, director of the center, said. “But we have seen some pretty dramatic shifts.”

The average number of jobs was only 0.3 percent lower than the 2019 average, but participation in Maine’s labor force is down because of the state’s aging population and retirements moved up during the pandemic, he said. It leaves the state with near record-high job openings.

In a recent report, the center followed workers who received unemployment benefits from the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020 through December 2021. Most were forced to leave their job because of layoffs or other pandemic-related cutbacks, so the job hopping doesn’t reflect the “Great Resignation,” during which people voluntarily left jobs in droves, he said.

The most common sector shifts were from accommodation and food services — one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic — to retail trade and health care and social assistance, which is primarily nursing and residential care facilities. Retail trade workers who shifted sectors were most likely to be reemployed in the health care and social assistance and the accommodation and food services sectors.

“The shifts are not attributable to one factor,” Erin Fenton, senior economic research analyst with the center, said. “It could have been they were looking for a little more stability, perhaps it was better wages.”

Still, there are two job openings for every one unemployed job seeker, McInerney said. Maine’s unemployment rate has steadily trickled down to 3 percent in June, down from a high during the pandemic of 9.1 percent in April 2020. The rate was 3 percent or lower for all of 2019.

Professional and business services, construction and private educational services each saw 5 percent more jobs compared to 2019. Professional and business services saw the highest numerical increase of 4,500 jobs.

Other sectors saw the number of jobs drop compared to 2019. Health care and social assistance, which is primarily nursing and residential care facilities, was down 3.9 percent and had the largest numerical decrease in jobs, minus 4,100. Government jobs, both at the local and state level, were down 3.2 percent.

The leisure and hospitality sector, which was the hardest hit for most of the pandemic but which is recovering strongly, still has 3.5 percent fewer jobs, down 2,400, as some businesses cut back hours and hired fewer people.

McInerney said the data can help decision-makers in the state direct labor policy, especially in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility programs in communities where the economic recovery in the past two years lacks equity.

“This research can help close gaps,” he said.