Monday, December 29, 2008

A regional approach to economic stimulus

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an OpEd by Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the potential for pork in Mr. Obama’s proposed federal stimulus package coming down the pike.

Winston argues the wisdom of large expenditures of federal capital without a requisite return on the social side—basically, not wasting this opportunity by funneling funds to projects like polar bear exhibits and water-park rides.

[Will the Obama economic stimulus target the right infrastructure projects, or will it be stuffed with political pork?]

As public officials, like governors, line up for the new administration’s largesse, the list of infrastructure projects continues to grow—the number now rests at 11,391. These projects are what are being referred to as “shovel-ready” by governors like New York’s David Patterson.

Bill Dodge, over at the blog, Regional Communities-“Think Globally, Act Regionally”©, shares some similar ideas about stimulus packages and infrastructure development.

Like Winston, Dodge sees the proper response from the new administration to be one rooted in a cultural understanding of the issues and needs, and to resist the cynical response of resorting to “business as usual” when it comes to federal spending.

Dodge proposes a two-phase approach to economic stimulus. “Target labor-intensive public works efforts, such as “(weatherizing) public buildings and (assisting) homeowners to do the same. Recycle natural resources, such as converting pine trees destroyed by bark beetles into fuel for pellet stoves.”

Then, Dodge advises revisiting the “shovel-ready” projects and determining feasibility based upon whether they pass a “renewability” test.

Dodge, who the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, and author of the book, Regional Excellence: Governing Together to Compete Globally and Flourish Locally, sees the wisdom of rolling this infrastructure package out, regionally. This would seem to make sense, given that the U.S. is made up of contiguous regions. Dodge contends that there are approximately 600 regions nationwide.

I’d recommend reading both Winston and Dodge on this subject, particularly because I think it's an approach that could benefit Maine.

Accessing key resources during economic hard times

Economic woes, and job layoffs are finding Mainers turning to a versatile resource for help—their local public library.

For those without computers, libraries help bridge the technological/digital divide that exists in Maine, and other states, nationwide. Given that more and more job and career resources are available online, not having access to technology can be a dealbreaker for anyone looking to put together a resume, scour state job boards, or other sites, as well as file unemployment claims.

Sharon Kiley Mach has an article in this morning's Bangor Daily News highlighting this increase in library use across the state.

Like local libraries, Maine’s CareerCenters fill an important niche for job seekers, those laid off, and folks needing assistance with transitioning into new employment, or accessing various state services affiliated with the loss of employment, like filing unemployment claims.

Each of the state’s CareerCenters have computers with internet access available to the general public, as well as staff that can assist job seekers with information, as well as workshops on updating a resume, interviewing skills, career exploration as well as strategies for upgrading work skills, and programs like WorkReady.

As I wrote about earlier in the month, technology and workforce go hand in hand. Computer literacy, or the lack thereof, only compounds the problems of those that are out of work. Fortunately, in our area (Lewiston-Auburn), groups like DEC recognize the issue and along with other resources, are stepping up and making a difference, through their Digital Divide Project.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Solis named new U.S. labor secretary

President-elect Barack Obama will name California Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis as his labor secretary, adding a Hispanic woman to his Cabinet, a Democratic official said Thursday.

The official announcement will be made on Friday, in Chicago.

Solis was first elected to Congress in 2000 and represents parts of East Los Angeles, including a large portion of the Hispanic community.

“Hilda Solis is a very strong champion of working families and will be an outstanding Secretary of Labor,” said House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller. “Her record in the California legislature as a leader on labor issues and her excellent work in Congress on behalf our of nation’s working men and women will restore the Department of Labor as an advocate for hard-working Americans. I look forward to working with her and the Obama administration to move the country forward on expanding health care, improving worker safety, strengthening retirement security and rebuilding our middle class.”

In 2007, Solis co-introduced the Green Jobs Act of 2007 (H.R. 2847), along with John Tierney (D-MA). The act authorized up to $125 million in funding to establish national and state job training programs, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, to help address job shortages that are impairing growth in green industries, such as energy efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy efficient vehicles, and biofuels development.

The Workforce Alliance hails the nomination of Solis. This comes from their new release about the Solis nomination:

“Congresswoman Solis has been a champion for giving every American the chance to share in the prosperity of the 21st-century economy, including training people for good-paying jobs in emerging green industries,” said Andy Van Kleunen, the Alliance’s Executive Director. “During this time of economic challenge, we look forward to working with her in her new post at the Department of Labor to rebuild the American economy by investing in the American people.”

This appointment could very well be the centerpiece of the new administration’s thrust to stimulate the national (as well as Maine’s) economy through the creation of middle-class jobs in a green energy sector, through an investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Help for Small Business Owners In These Difficult Times

In these very difficult economic conditions there are important resources that small business owners should be aware of. Small Business Development Counselors are available to work with businesses on any issues they may have, including workforce training and development. Brad Swanson, one of the counselors I have had the pleasure to work with in a few situations has written a wonderful article about the help the counselors can provide. He also mentions the Maine's 2-1-1 system when someone needs personal help through these difficult times. He has given me permission to share his article here and since it is public record he hopes it is shared widely. Brad's contact information is within the article and go to the SBDC website for more information on the services provided through this program.

Getting the Right Kind of Help When Your Small Business is in Trouble
By Brad Swanson, Maine SBDC Certified Master Business Counselor

As a Business Counselor with the Maine Small Business Development Centers ( I am all too aware of how the current global economic and financial crisis is impacting Maine’s small business community. Conditions are very, very tough out there right now. Sales are down. Expenses are up. Cash flow is tight. Credit is tight. Many businesses are finding it hard, if not impossible to survive.

The Maine Small Business Development Centers is one organization that Mainers turn to for assistance, to start, to grow, and now to try to save their businesses. My colleagues around the state and I are trained, experienced and certified to assist. We have business acumen, technical skills and knowledge of local, regional, state and federal resources targeted to help the self-employed and small business owners here in Maine. We work diligently, one on one with our clients; we listen and offer free, confidential, honest and respectfully business management support. In troubled times, this support is often what we are told has made the biggest difference to getting through. Small business ownership can be a lonely job. And to have a trained professional with whom to talk things through is very helpful.

Our assistance is on-line as well. The Maine SBDC has recently posted a special section on our web site that offers good, solid, clear advice and tools on how to survive the sort of downturn we are currently experiencing. There are live links to a wide range of resources available to inform and assist small businessmen and businesswomen in Maine as they adjust to these trying economic times.

We know that there are circumstances where a business solution is not possible, however, where neither credit, nor cost cutting, nor any other intervention will make a difference. The business situation is not reversible. Often, these situations will escalate the level of stress for the business owner, or self-employed individual, causing anxiety, fear, and confusion. When this occurs the questions change from the need for business support to a need for personal support. Where does one go when business counseling cannot make a difference, when there is a pending business failure with its resultant emotional turmoil? Where is the support for someone in crisis, unable to cope any further with the realities of their business situation and the impact that it is having on the rest of their life? Many Mainers in crisis turn first to family, friends, church and community. The support of trusted and caring others is a time honored means for making it through the toughest of times.

If a crisis intensifies beyond the family’s or close friend’s ability to assist, Maine’s 2-1-1 (211) system provides an easy access statewide call-in directory for local and regional professional health and human services support for services including food, clothing, shelter, crisis intervention, counseling, suicide prevention and many other emergency services. 2-1-1 represents a better and easier way to find answers when this level of support is needed.

Small business is challenging and not without its risks. Knowing where to turn for support in the face of a business crisis is essential. Knowing what other support is available to weather the personal impact from a storm such as the one blowing through our economy right now, is clearly as important.

Brad Swanson is a certified Master Business Counselor at Maine Small Business Development Centers. He is part of the Maine SBDC service center at Coastal Enterprises, Inc. With an office in Brunswick, Brad is currently assigned to work with businesses under the North Star Alliance Initiative. He can be reached at

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Network update-Franklin County

The folks in Franklin County, tucked into Maine’s western mountains, recognize that education is one of the key components in its economic future. Without the requisite skills and training, most of its residents are sure to be left behind, unable to compete in a global marketplace, and certainly unable to access a middle-class way-of-life that was once part of the American Dream.

The Franklin Community College Network provides an important catalyst in providing educational opportunities, by providing a pathway to higher education and training, and eliminating obstacles and barriers that in the past may have prevented many in the area from accessing, or even considering college, or a skilled trades career.

Since 2005, the network has provided college-level instruction to 246 students, many of them going on to matriculate at Central Maine Community College, and elsewhere. Additionally, the network has also helped set up training for more than 100 residents of the county for trades-related jobs, partnering with companies like the Cianbro Corporation to provide welding classes. During this time, no student has ever been turned away due to financial reasons, remarkable in itself, and even more so considering the tough economic conditions that have plagued the region since the demise of the wood products industry, and other traditional industries.

Last night, the network recognized nine organizations and their representatives for their role in making the network a reality.

The network also accepted a legislative sentiment of appreciation, acknowledging the organization’s recent Noyce Award for Nonprofit Excellence. The award, which was presented by the Maine Community Foundation, recognizes one nonprofit agency each year. The Franklin County Community College Network was selected from among 16 nonprofits--one from each county--that were awarded special Maine Community Foundation 25th anniversary community-building grants in November. Semifinalists for the Noyce Award included Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, Trekkers, Community Wellness Coalition, and St. Mary's Health System.

You can find more information on last night’s award ceremony at The Daily Bulldog’s website.

For an overview of the network, I’ve included this link to an article that I wrote back in 2007, on how this network approach to training and education came to be.

Additionally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation commissioned writer Betsy Rubiner to do an article on the network, which illustrates their Rural Family Economic Success (RuFES) framework of Earn It, Keep It, and Grow It.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is energy independence a reality?

Energy independence is a hot topic these days. Conversations about alternative energy are commonplace, as are beliefs that technological innovation will ultimately save the day when it comes to reliance on oil, and in particular, foreign oil. Texas billionaire, T. Boone Pickens, has put up significant amounts of his own money touting his belief that wind and natural gas is how we wean ourselves from the vestiges of foreign petroleum. Additionally, the recent presidential horserace was rife with politicians weighing in on the need for America to become independent of foreign oil, and the geopolitical ramifications of said dependence.

Good books and good writing often finds a way to cut through the commonplace, and takes us to places away from the chattering masses. Robert Bryce, in his latest book, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence," does just that. Taking the position that energy independence is a myth at best, and that ethanol, wind, and even solar, can’t provide for our ever-increasing needs for electricity and other accoutrements making our American way of life possible, Bryce isn’t afraid to swim against the popular current of information that oversimplifies the issue.

Bryce is no Johnny-come-lately to energy, as his first two books, Pipe Dreams, and Cronies laid the foundation for this one. Sadly, there aren’t enough writers like Bryce selling books today that dare to tell the emperor that he’s not wearing any clothes.

The concept of energy independence isn’t a new one. Then President Nixon vowed that America would be energy independent in six years. This was in 1974, during his January State of the Union address. A year later, with Nixon departed in disgrace, his replacement, President Ford, claimed it could be done in decade. Jimmy Carter warned that the world’s oil supply would run out in a decade. This was back in 1977.

The introduction to the book, called “The Persistent Delusion,” lists a who’s who of American’s across a variety of spectrums of public life, from policymakers, to actors like Robert Redford, as well as media types, who’ve used the rhetoric of “energy independence,” to the point that it’s a cultural belief on the part of most Americans, even though few know what this really means.

From the book,

“The appeal of this vision of energy autarky has grown dramatically since the terrorist attacks of September 11. That can be seen through an analysis of news stories that contain the phrase “energy independence.” In 2000, the Factiva news database had just 449 stories containing that phrase. In 2001, there were 1,118 stories. By 2006, that number had soared to 8,069.”

Obviously, journalists like the topic and are writing about it, even though they may lack any substantive evidence to support their efforts. In their parlance, all foreign oil is bad.

This is particularly true of Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, and author of several books, including what became the bible for most business people two years ago, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, at least it was a book that they loved to make reference to.

Bryce doesn’t like Friedman too much, at least his ideas and concepts on energy. First, he takes him to task for supporting the oil-causes-terrorism theory, which is also the position held by groups like The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and their Set America Free manifesto that propagates that idea. Along with Friedman, they believe America’s best weapon against terrorism is to decrease U.S. dependency on foreign oil—if it was only that simple.

Second, Bryce exhibits a healthy amount of skepticism towards the promotion of policies oriented towards wind that Friedman supports. Similar to Pickens, Friedman holds the belief that building a national electricity grid from the Dakotas to Texas to harness the power of the wind where it’s produced and transporting it via large transmission lines to the population centers where it’s most needed (according to Friedman, urban areas like his own NYC), will dramatically reduce our need to import foreign oil. Next, according to Friedman, the wind power can then be used to power electric cars. He posits that all of this will mean dramatic reductions in CO2 emissions.

The issue that Bryce has with wind is its unreliability—the wind only blows at certain times. He makes the point that wind advocates regularly talk about megawatts, which details generating capacity. Bryce makes the point that kilowatts are the key measurement that should be focused on, as when that is analyzed, we see that the comparison to other sources of electricity production—nuclear and coal-fired power plants—illustrates that scale shows that wind may not be the savior that Friedman, Pickens, and some in Maine think that it may be.

Going on to make strong points about how few Americans understand the rules of the energy game, and the science behind it, Bryce makes the case that they become pawns in the game, easily duped by politicians, environmental advocates, and others that stand to gain from wind’s development.

Bryce saves his greatest scorn for ethanol, calling it a scam in chapter 12.

I recall during the early days of the 2008 presidential race, President-elect Obama was trekking across the Midwest with a fleet of ethanol-powered cars. I’m sure this was around the time of the Iowa caucus, if my memory serves me right.

Bryce makes the case that the passion that many have for ethanol borders on “religious fervor,” and that those that hold a belief in its efficacy also consider it to be “morally better than oil.” This kind of advocacy is dangerous, in my opinion, and Bryce certainly makes the case that this is so, and that it leads bad policies, like Maine’s current 10 percent ethanol mix in our gasoline, which leads to a significant decrease in vehicle fuel efficiency. If you track your gas mileage, like I do, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Spending a good portion of the book showing why independence is impossible, and that the issue is really, interdependence, Bryce’s book is a worthwhile read for anyone who cares to cut through the fog of myths and get to the crux of the issues about energy. A definite must read, in my opinion.

For those who view book reading with trepidation, particularly nonfiction, Gusher of Lies is a very readable book. Excluding footnotes and the appendix, GoL checks in at less than 300 pages, which isn’t bad for the amount of usable information that you’ll take away from spending time with the book. I read it in a weekend, and Bryce does a good job of breaking the book up into bite-sized bits, as many of the 22 chapters are less than 10 pages each, which allow you to read portions here and there and not lose the main thread, which is a real plus.

It was released earlier this year, so I’m hoping that politicians and policymakers put it on their reading list for early 2009.

In closing, I want to make a couple of points on my own, particularly as they apply to workforce issues.

There has been quite a bit of talk and discussion about green jobs and developing an economy tied to alternative energy. I’ve put up several posts here, myself. I am as big a champion of this as anyone. Having said that, I think it’s important to separate the myths between what’s real and attainable, particularly for a rural state like Maine, and the “pie in the sky” kind of talk that politicians and some policymakers are known for—much sound and fury, signifying nothing. The latter is not anything I’m interested in.

On that point, I think our workforce board in Central/Western Maine is pursing this matter systematically, beginning slow, building upon an evidential approach. I hope to have more to report on this in 2009, as I think there is legitimate potential for opportunities tied to efficiency, and boosting occupations that are linked to skilled trades.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mixing workforce and technology

These are challenging times. With the economy in a nosedive, and Mainers hunkering down for 3+ months of winter (and then mud season), it’s natural for some to be pessimistic. Personally, rather than be pessimistic, I’d prefer to look for reasons to be hopeful, recognizing that this economic dark season shall pass, believing in the cyclical nature of the economy and markets.

One way to look at this downturn is choosing to see it as an opportunity to plan and make provisions for the recession’s end. An area that some are choosing to focus on is the area of workforce development, recognizing that it ties directly into economic prosperity.

The city of Waterville is fortunate to have a group of people that see the future of the greater-Waterville area as tied to strengthening its workforce. In a state where the population is aging, and where far too many young people are choosing to start their work careers elsewhere, having a regional strategy for workforce/economic development is key to future growth and job creation, not to mention being able to staff current levels of need in healthcare, skilled trades and manufacturing, and the possibility of new jobs tied to a clean and green economy.

Kim Lindlof, president and CEO of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, John Butera, executive director of the Central Maine Growth Council, and Executive Director, Ken Young, Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, head up the business community’s focus on strengthening Waterville’s workforce for the future.

Recently, this leadership trio spearheaded an effort to launch the community’s first offering of WorkReady, an innovative soft skills training program that has had success in other communities in the state, most notably Lewiston/Auburn. Butera noted at Tuesday’s meeting of the Chamber’s Business & Retention Committee that the emphasis in economic development circles has shifted noticeably towards developing the workforce.

“Ten to 15 years ago, economic developers were focused on infrastructure, real estate, incentives, etc. as key components to growing regional economies. That has shifted dramatically, as human resources (i.e. workforce development) have become THE driving force behind a region's ability to move forward and transform their economy,” said Butera.

Communities like Waterville that understand the importance workforce development in their economic growth mix, will be well-positioned in 2009/2010, when Maine’s economy picks up again.

Given the city’s prime location relative to I-95, it’s solid downtown infrastructure, the great potential represented by the Hathaway Creative Center, two major healthcare institutions, along with Colby College and Kennebec Community College just up the road, Waterville is a community worth considering for business growth and expansion. It is also going to be a place in Maine where young people might be attracted to, as evidenced by trends elsewhere. Add to that the commitment of members of the community like Lindlof, Butera, and Young, as well as Waterville Main Street's Shannon Haines, and Waterville bears watching, and even some investment by prudent and forward-looking investors.


Speaking of economic growth and moving Maine’s future forward, high speed internet access continues be problematic for large portions of the state. In a 21st century world, having substandard technological access only compounds some of the state’s other issues.

Recently, PC Magazine listed ISP speeds in New England, and Maine was next to last, just ahead of tiny Vermont. While it was nice not to finish dead last in New England, raising Maine’s surf speed to the national average might be a worthwhile goal (Maine is at 427 Kbps and the national average is 527; Connecticut, which is first in New England is at surf speeds of 716 Kbps). Also finding a way to bring all parts of the state along to where high speed internet access is both available, and affordable would be laudable. [Source: The Daily/Mainebiz (scroll to bottom)]

Too often, rural areas of the state lack broadband access, as well as affordable options and are forced to rely on outmoded dial-up access to the Internet. Equally unacceptable is that large swaths of densely populated communities like Lewiston, including downtown, also lack affordable options for broadband. Why is this? Possibly, it’s the lack of ROI for telecommunications companies that ought to be making investments in residential broadband, but decide that the socioeconomic level doesn’t warrant it—i.e. “bang for their buck.” That reason doesn’t address the need for broadband, irrespective of income level, however, which is a much broader discussion that this post won’t address. It also affects businesses that might want to locate downtown, and could provide some needed economic stimulus and jobs to the heart of the city.

One possible solution might be a state-wide network of Broadband over power-lines (BPL), which could be powered eventually by clean energy. There are still variables and logistics to work out, but this holds promise for rural states, like Maine, in solving their issues of state-wide broadband access.

One network model that has some possibilities for Maine would provide asynchronous broadband (same up/download speed constant) at a speed of 512 Kbps. This would begin small, in select areas and could grow as the network expands and a broadband backbone is developed. Eventually, it is possible to grow this state-wide. Wind power might factor into the equation for powering this.

A group in rural Franklin County, Western Mountains Broadband Cooperative, is currently at work on the logistics of making this happen. Stay tuned for more details in early 2009.

[Note: FairPoint Communications, a new telecomm player to Maine, is also looking at ways to expand broadband options in the Mid-Maine area. FMI information, contact KVCOG, or fill out this online inquiry form.]

Another local initiative with a great deal of promise is the Downtown Education Collaborative’s (DEC) Digital Divide project.

DEC is a local partnership consisting of seven academic and community institutions. They recently opened a new storefront education center at 219 Lisbon Street, located in the heart of downtown Lewiston, an area where computer and internet access is at a premium.

DEC’s mission will be to pursue education partnerships in and with Lewiston’s downtown residential community. Its members include the four colleges of the Lewiston-Auburn area — Andover College, Bates College, Central Maine Community College, and the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston Auburn College — as well as the Lewiston Public Library, Lewiston Adult Education and Empower Lewiston.

Recognizing that few residents of downtown Lewiston own computers, and that the cost of buying a computer, not to mention maintaining it is cost-prohibitive to many residents of downtown, DEC saw creating computer access as a natural fit with their mission.

When DEC became aware that there were two fully functioning computer labs, with relevant software and Internet access, located in the downtown area (representing 31 computers), but were often not accessible due to staffing issues, they took it upon themselves to remedy this.

By helping to provide staffing, DEC has been able to ensure that both labs are accessible five days a week. DEC has been able to facilitate staffing, which provides technical help, as well as one-on-one assistance and mentoring. This has helped residents with online job searches, resume writing, getting training on how to use Microsoft applications, learning keyboarding skills, setting up email accounts, and using Rosetta Stone (language) software.

Working in Maine will be revisiting this exciting project in the near future.