Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reviving hope in Rumford

Is economic revival possible in rural communities, particularly when traditional industries like manufacturing and papermaking dry up? Maine has made some attempts at trying to spur entrepreneurship in the state's rural counties, with limited success. More often than not, economic development in Maine continues to rely upon attracting large employers to the state, rather than trying to grow development organically.

In Maine's western mountains, economic prosperity has been measured by mills, and by the viability of traditional industries like logging. While that served the needs of the 20th century, the advent of the 21st century has not been kind to communities like Rumford.

Driving into town on either Route 108, or Route 2, gives you a clear vista of the community, and the obvious role of the paper mill. Most of the community's current infrastructure came from the growth spurt that Rumford experienced at the tail end of the 19th century, and the early years of the 20th. A drive through the town's neighborhoods today, reveals an abundance of Victorian, and Edwardian archetecture.

Mark Henry grew up in Rumford. Like many of his peers, Henry left the River Valley, in search of greener pastures. A stint in the military, then the launch of an innovative business venture, Mark Henry Enterprises, brought Henry success. His business, located in North Carolina, helped companies ranging from Fortunes 500 firms, and the military, to small start ups, access online training options.

While life in North Carolina was good, Henry and his family returned regularly each summer to the family camp on Roxbury Pond to vacation, and to experience the cool, clear ponds of the area, and the breathtaking mountain vistas.

It occurred to Henry one day that he could do his business anywhere. When Time Warner Cable brought high speed internet to his doorstep, on the pond, he and his wife knew that this is where they wanted to be full-time.

Back in the area, Henry immediately recognized the latent potential that the River Valley possessed. Rather than hoping against hope that the glory days of papermaking, or that manufacturing would rescue the community, Henry believes that Rumford's renaissance will come from the same entreprenurial spirit that brought him his success.

This morning's Sun Journal contains a well-written article by staff writer, Terry Karkos, detailing Henry's ambitious plan to launch a business idea that he believes could generate more than $3 million by training low-wage workers to become economically self-sufficient in five years.

Henry has formed The Good Fisher, a Maine nonprofit micro-business incubator and training facility. Currently, he is in the process of raising $360,000 in startup money, donations of equipment and 12,000 square feet of space that he believes the project will require.

The Good Fisher will foster and develop entrepreneurial activity in low-income workers in the region through a business co-op that provides training, technical and financial assistance, and long-term business support.

"The River Valley has great potential in its people and location, and The Good Fisher is committed to helping restore the economic viability of the region while renewing pride in our community," he stated Tuesday in a news release.

To read the entire Sun Journal article, you can find it here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer jobs

While the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston expects this summer to be the worst job market for teens in 60 years, the outlook for Maine’s young ‘uns is a promising one—at least according to this morning’s Portland Press Herald.

Seasonal employers remain a key component in providing teens with valuable work experiences. Some are a bit skittish about adding a rash of summer help, while gauging whether gas will put a crimp in the summer tourist onslaught. However, if Memorial Day is any indication, Maine’s tourist season will once again be more affected by summer weather, than the prices at the pump.

While many summer jobs aren’t glamorous, or even lucrative, they do provide our future workforce with its first formative experiences within the world of work.

All of us have our own stories about that summer spent painting houses, or bussing tables of food scraps left by summer visitors. In fact, one Maine author has achieved a certain measure of fame, writing about his experiences with summer employment.

[Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette; Portland Press Herald]

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Capturing collaboration

Much of the work that is done on the workforce side, in Central/Western Maine, involves collaboration, and partnerships. We're fortunate to have a wealth of great organizations, and individuals that understand the importance of leveraging resources, and putting their own agendas aside, for the sake of building some models of success, like WorkReady, and Next Steps.

As someone who writes professionally, with a background as a freelance journalist, I know what it takes to develop an article involving various groups, and organizations. It is an art to create an article that accurately captures a project, or idea, so that readers have a clear sense of what has happened.

Catherine Carson-Gabriel, who is the Communications Coordinator for Central Maine Community College, has done a wonderful job in distilling the essence of our recent Next Steps training, done in collaboration with CMCC. Her article, which appears in the May Around Campus News publication of the college, is also posted on their website. Here is a link to the article.

Thanks, Catherine, for accurately capturing the spirit and essence of the work that many of us consider important, and injecting a great deal of passion into. It is very much appreciated.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Caring for customers in Franklin County

Franklin County, like many rural counties in the U.S., has struggled to transition from resource-based industries, like logging, and manufacturing, to the 21st century world of information, and technology.

Barclays, a major global financial services provider, based in the UK, has chosen Wilton, Maine for their newest customer care center. This is slated to create 50 jobs immediately, with a total of 200 positions being added to Franklin County's workforce over the next 10 years.

[Empty cubicles waiting for new hires, at Barclays' new customer care center, in Wilton]

While some decry call centers, viewing them as one of Maine's many low-wage employers, others see Barclays as a positive development for an area that has been hard hit by job losses, and a dearth of living wage jobs.

Jen McEntee, Barclays' site director for the new customer care facility, located in the old Bass Shoe building, understands some people's reservations. A veteran of over 15 years in the industry, McEntee, a Wilton resident, sees this new center as much different than the usual call center that many people hold as a stereotype.

“Barclays is trying to get away from the ‘typical’ call center that people immediately think of,” said McEntee. “For one thing, all our calls are inbound. We do not make outbound telemarketing calls.”

With many corporations continuing to attempt to off-shore most of their customer care operations, experiences remain mixed. While some calls, and customer contact can be done by unskilled workers outside the U.S., consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive about handing private and personal information to someone that they perceive as untrustworthy.

[The first group of trainees and instructors prepare to go live]

[The values that Barclays brings to its customers]

“There is a much to be said for keeping jobs in the U.S.,” said McEntee. “Customers have become very sensitive, particularly in light of the recent Hannafords Supermarket situation, and others, where personal information was compromised. I think people feel much better speaking with a representative that is conscious of the needs of the customer, and the situation they are handling, as well as knowing the cultural issues.”

Barclays pays competitive wages for the area, with full benefits. These benefits include vacation, dental, a 401K option, as well as an opportunity to earn monthly incentive bonuses. Additionally, the company is committed to the communities where they locate their facilities, allowing their employees to opportunity to participate in community service projects, while being paid by the company.

Currently, 10 new hires are undergoing three weeks of intensive training, in preparation for going live on the phones. After the training is finished, these graduates will begin offering Barclays’ clients world class customer care from Wilton, Maine.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wood pellets for Maine

Few names in New England business circles elicit notice like Les Otten’s. Otten, best known for his role in the ski industry, as the founder of American Skiing, got his start in the industry, when he purchased the struggling Sunday River Resort in 1980. He parlayed this initial investment (funded by selling scrap metal, copper wire, and used bulldozer blades) into the foundation that eventually became American Skiing Co., which purchased Maine's Sugarloaf ski resort and resorts in five other states. Otten was eventually forced out of American Skiing and became a minority partner of the Red Sox before selling his stake in the club last year.

Much of Otten’s success in the industry stemmed from his marketing savvy, as well as his commitment to the development of snowmaking technology. By the end of the 1990s, Sunday River boasted New England's largest and most powerful snowmaking technology in a computer-driven system that turned on compressors and pumps capable of driving 65,000 cubic feet of air and 9,000 gallons of water per minute through 72 miles of steel pipe to produce snow. This system, developed in-house, was the world's largest high-pressured snowmaking system and was used exclusively at ASC's resorts.

While Otten has his critics, no one can accuse him of standing pat. That’s why his latest venture, Maine Energy Sytems, which hopes to convince over 40,000 homeowners in Maine to convert from oil, to wood pellets, is so compelling.

With oil prices north of $120/gallon, and with 80 percent of Maine homes heated by oil, or kerosene, Otten may be onto something with his latest business venture.

Otten is the lead investor in Maine Energy Systems. His partners are William Strauss, president of the FutureMetrics financial forecasting firm, and Harry "Dutch" Dresser, a former Gould Academy associate headmaster.

The business plan calls for Maine Energy to sell fully automated boilers made by Bosch Thermotechnologies, an arm of the large German appliance maker. The technology is far different from traditional wood boilers, which require users to keep cords of wood and feed the wood into the furnace by hand. Instead, a fleet of delivery trucks will pump pellets into storage tanks, where they can be automatically fed into the boilers, Otten said. The boilers produce less pollution and less ash residue than outdoor boilers and conventional wood stoves because they use a refined product that is burned at high temperatures, he added.

While no one knows whether oil will continue to escalate in price, or whether a price drop will negate the attractiveness of this venture. Also, does Maine have the workforce that can support the training of a fleet of certified technicians that will be required to install, as well as service this network of homes converting to wood pellets?

Regardless of the outcome, this kind of bold vision, and forward-thinking attitude is exactly what Maine needs more of. Rather than wringing hands, or bemoaning the lack of economic opportunities (or high taxes), we need to create revenue, and ventures like this one have the potential to do so.

[Portions of this post were culled from an Associated Press article that ran, May 9, as well as information found at FundingUniverse.-JB]

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

WCSH to report on Maine's Seasoned Workforce

WCSH-6, out of Portland, as well as their sister station in Bangor, WLBZ, channel 2, will be running a special report Thursday, on Maine's aging workforce. Highlighted in Scott Sassone's feature, which will run at 6:00 pm, and 11:00, willl be Dave Tomm, and Seasoned Workforce, LLC.

The Central/Western Maine Workforce Board has been partnering since last fall with Tomm, and his organization out of Rockland, hosting forums designed to create a dialogue between older workers, or "seasoned" workers, as they're often referred to, and Maine's employers.

Seasoned Workforce, LLC offers advocacy programs and employment opportunities that are providing valuable benefits to business, community and seasoned people in Maine. Since January of 2007 the company has held 14 Seasoned Worker Forums in Bath, Lewiston and Rockland, recently offering them in Portland, and Augusta for the very first time. The program has been met with enthusiasm, as jobseekers and employers recognize the value provided by their program, which addressed Maine's the changing workforce and highlights pportunities for employees. Over 800 individuals and businesses have participated in these forums.

Tomm is a master facilitator. An older worker himself, he has an engaging style that gets at the issues many of the participants are feeling, as well as building support among Maine's employers, such as L.L. Bean, Bonney Staffing, Irving, TD Banknorth, and many other businesses that recognize the value and experience represented by this demographic of workers.

I eagerly look forward to Sassone's report.

Here is a dire graphic that appeared in the just released People, Place, and Prosperity, by the Governor's Council onf Maine's Quality of Place. It pertains to issues that will affect our state, and ties nicely with the efforts put forth by Tomm's organization.

[By 2030, more than one in four Mainers will be retirement age or older. The number of deaths exceeds births each year in half of Maine’s counties. School enrollment has fallen by 50,000 students in Maine’s public schools since the 1970s.--Source: State Planning Office, based on data from the US Census Bureau, October 2007]

Monday, May 5, 2008

Helping Maine Thrive

I’m convinced that Maine is at a crossroads of where it can go as a state. One choice is continuing the status quo, which is the easiest thing to do. If the state makes that choice, it will continue us down the pathway strewn with a rash of low-wage, low-skilled jobs that pay workers wages that they can’t support their families on. This leads to the type of revenue issues that the state has been struggling with for the past decade.

The other choice, which I’ve been vocal about, and fits the workforce development model of our board, here in Central/Western Maine, is the development of middle-skills, which is where between 40 to 45 percent of all job openings in the economy through 2014, will be. Compare this to one-third in high skilled occupations and the remaining 22 percent, which will occur in low-skilled occupations.

I wrote an Op Ed about this, which ended up being published in the Central Maine newspapers, as well as sending out about 60 emails to legislators, policymakers, and others in positions to make a difference about the issue. Interestingly, I received one response, from State Representative, Mark Samson (D-Auburn). That spoke volumes to me about where everyone else's priorities seem to be.

On Friday night, at a family birthday party, that Op Ed was the subject of a conversation I had with my wife’s niece’s husband. He works for a well-established manufacturing firm, in Westbrook, and apparently, one of his co-workers is quite interested in the subject of middle-skills. He forwarded an email to him, which happened to highlight my Op Ed. The private sector certainly gets the importance of it, as was evidenced during last week’s manufacturing summit, in Lewiston.

This morning, I had an email forwarded to me, which mentioned a new report, being launched by the Council on Competitiveness. Thrive: The Skills Imperative, calls for America to leverage untapped opportunities, particularly in the service economy.

The Council recognizes that the challenges posed by globalization, technological change and volatile financial markets require new workforce strategies that prioritize around skills that are not easily offshored, difficult to replicate and quicken the pace of innovation. According to the report, middle-skilled jobs represent the largest number of job openings in the United States, but have critical shortages.

Recently, Senators Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) convened a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill to coincide with the report’s release. Their intent was to urge policymakers to set a national agenda to equip Americans with the skills needed to compete globally.

I laud their efforts and I urge Mainers to take the time to look at this report. It’s an important issue and not one that can be ignored any longer, if Maine’s economy is going to grow and prosper over the next decade.

While parts of the country are taking a hit during our current economic downturn, other areas are prospering. Maine has opportunities, with the growth of green technologies, as well as looking at wealth generation in both manufacturing, agriculture, as well as entrepreneurship, to position itself for prosperity, if it can gain some focus on key issues, instead of focusing all its energy on taxes, special interests, and economic doom and gloom.