2013-03-29 / Front Page

Forbes gives nod to Greater Portland

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A recent survey featured in Forbes Magazine showed the Greater Portland area tied for first place among the nation’s most optimistic hiring areas this season.

The survey conducted by ManpowerGroup, an employment services firm with offices nationwide – including a Portland location – gauged hiring optimism by asking thousands of companies the same question: do you plan to hire employees, lay off employees, or keep staff size the same between now and June 2013?

In the Greater Portland area, 27 percent of companies surveyed planned to hire, while only 4 percent planned layoffs, leaving 66 percent expecting to hold steady and 3 percent unsure. That 23 percent difference in Portland was matched nationally only by the San Jose metro area, where 25 percent of companies plan to hire and two percent plan to cutback.

Nationwide, there was an 11 percent seasonally adjusted difference between companies that planned to bring on staff and companies that planned to downsize. That “net employment outlook” is up from 10 percent a year ago, and a significant turnaround from the worst of the recession, when there was a negative 2 percent difference in 2009, meaning more companies planned layoffs than new hires.

“It’s not something you’d expect. If you’d have asked me a week before (the survey results were released), I’d have said things are pretty good, but I wouldn’t have gone for number one in the country. That’s pretty impressive,” said Chris Hall, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber.

The Greater Portland area, classified as the Portland-South Portland-Biddeford metropolitan area by the U.S. Department of Labor, includes all Cumberland County and much of York County. That area contains five cities, Portland, South Portland, Saco and Biddeford, as well as 35 towns, including Kennebunk, Old Orchard Beach, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.

Hall said he was impressed by the number of companies ready to grow, but even happier that almost no employers are planning to downsize after a prolonged period of recession and flat employment numbers. Now, Hall said the results show employers in the Portland area are “ready to go” after making it through the worst of the economic downturn.

In South Portland, City Manager Jim Gailey said anyone driving through the Maine Mall area can see the optimism by simply looking at once-vacant storefronts that are filling up with various new businesses.

This year, department store Bon-Ton is scheduled to open its first Maine location when it moves into the vacant Maine Mall space once occupied by Filene’s. Five Guys burgers and fries will open its third restaurant in the state when it moves into the mall area.

“The mall district is alive and well. People are still willing to invest, even though the economy some say might be a little uncertain,” Gailey said. “That investment is bringing jobs to the area.”

Biddeford City Manager John Bubier said the city has shown positive signs of growth since 2007, even as the rest of the country dipped into a recession. The mill district, he said, has experienced significant growth, in part because of the closure of Maine Energy’s incinerator.

The large number of Maine companies looking to grow is good news for job seekers, but it raises the question of whether there are enough qualified applicants who stay in the state to fill the open positions.

“We still have a lot of youth that gets educated in Maine and moves away, that’s part of the cycle of life. You don’t want to tell your kids they can’t go experience the world while they’re young,” Hall said.

However, Hall said the quality of life in Maine is extremely high, and convinces many people who grew up in Maine to ultimately settle close to home when they decide to settle down and raise a family.

“We know that without being told by Forbes,” Hall said.

District 7 Sen Rebecca Millett represents South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and part of Scarborough. She said legislators in Augusta recognize this problem and are working to address the so-called “skills gap.”

Millett said a law in front of the Committee of Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future would facilitate the seamless credit transfer between the University of Maine system and Maine’s community colleges. LD 90 would also reduce the wait list for community college programs in high demand to “create a training pipeline,” Millett said, that would help provide Maine students with the skills employers are looking for.

Bubier said Maine’s aging population complicates the issue for businesses trying to find qualified employees in the state.

“The first issue is not just the skills gap. The first issues is a bodies gap. There are not enough people who are going to be available in Maine to fill jobs, even if they were skilled,” Bubier said.

However, Bubier said the transportation networks, housing options and general quality of life in Maine help to both convince young people to stay and attract talent from outside the state.

While he said there’s work to be done to prepare Maine students with the skills they need to enter the workforce, Gailey shared Bubier’s optimism that was supported in the ManPower study.

“I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit,” Gailey said. “Some of us want to keep the gem to ourselves but I think the secret’s out. The Greater Portland area is a terrific place to live and work.”

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