Asa Clark, Aidan Clark and Samuel Tierney (left to right) package pizza dough at The Good Crust's new facility in Canaan in this May 2022 file photo. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

A leading Maine economic group recommended that state policymakers prioritize solving worker shortages and high energy costs in a report issued Wednesday.

The Maine Economic Growth Council, which develops long-range economic plans for the state, released its annual Measures of Growth progress report that tracked 31 indicators, including workforce development, infrastructure maintenance and health care costs.

Top on the list of concerns are labor shortages. Maine business leaders recently ranked the lack of availability of entry-level, skilled technical and professional workers as more concerning than state taxes and the cost of doing business.

In 2020, COVID-19 dealt a blow to Maine’s workforce, which shrank by more than 25,000. It bounced back in 2021, rising 1 percent to 680,000, but has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. Businesses in nearly every sector are struggling to find workers. The council said it supports the goal of Maine’s 10-year economic strategy to increase the labor force to about 700,000 by 2030 by attracting new workers to the state.

The report also recommended that policymakers prioritize affordable housing, health insurance costs, high-speed internet, lower costs of doing business, state taxes and labor costs.

Some ground was gained among the indicators, with the average wages rising 0.5 percent in 2021 after adjusting for inflation and the poverty rate falling slightly from 10.9 percent to 10.6 percent in 2020. Women’s median wages rose 1 percent in 2021 but still remained lower than men’s at about 83 percent of male earnings.

Exports rose a sharp 32 percent to $3.1 billion in 2021, their highest level since 2011. The top traded products were seafood, paper and industrial machinery, whose exports all rose 49 percent or more. Canada remains Maine’s leading trade partner, with $1.6 billion in exports in 2021, followed by China, El Salvador, Malaysia and the Netherlands.

Maine remains a safe state, with its crime rate 46 percent below the U.S. average in 2020, but health remains a concern. Two-thirds of Maine adults are overweight or obese, a ratio that hasn’t changed for several years.

Mental and behavioral health also is a major concern to address. In 2019-2020, the percentage of children with a mental or behavioral condition such as anxiety or depression rose more than 2 percent to 28.5 percent. That is significantly higher than the U.S. average of 22.6 percent. In 2021, 36 percent of Maine high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more. Early evidence suggests that COVID-19 dealt an additional blow to children’s mental health.

“Mental and behavioral health plays an important role in how children learn, grow, form relationships and handle stress,” the report said. “It influences their overall health and well-being, and their future conduct as employees, parents and community members.”

Many older Mainers are experiencing similar challenges. In September 2022, about 35 percent of Maine adults had symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Maine is seeing record high drug-related deaths, and the impacts of substance use ripple through households, schools and communities, the report noted.