ELLSWORTH — Jobs, jobs everywhere and nary a person to fill them.
The local and national employee shortage has hit every industry it seems, including the business of local government.
“There is an unprecedented number of manager vacancies currently but also other positions and elected officials,” said Cathy Conlow, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association and former longtime Bangor city manager. “Maine is facing a ‘perfect storm.’”
Hancock County is not escaping the storm clouds.
Among the wish list of openings needing to be filled: a town clerk and code enforcement officer for Surry; an administrator for Blue Hill; a town manager for Gouldsboro; a building maintenance employee and highway department mechanic for Ellsworth; an economic development director for Stonington; highway crew for Bar Harbor; more police officers for Bucksport; a county administrator and deputy county administrator for Hancock County and so on and so forth.
Conlow attributes staffing shortages to both the COVID-19 pandemic and demographic changes.
“First, there are just less employees in the workforce, which was exacerbated by the pandemic,” Conlow said. “And, there are just fewer young people in the pipeline. This demographic shift has been occurring for decades.”
“The impacts are coming for sure,” said Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings, who forecasts longer wait times for municipal services, including road plowing, registering vehicles and other services, such as permits issued by code enforcement officers, who are in short supply.
Billings said she had wanted to find a full-time replacement for her former economic development director, Henry Teverow, but has resorted to cobbling together help from two retirees working part time — job sharing, as it were.
“The past few years have been brutal trying to hire road crew and plow crew in the winter,” Billings said. “We have had to pay top dollar above others perhaps in the area to keep services going because being on the Island with less of an employment pool is a huge challenge for us.”
“But overall, it is hard to hire anyone now, there aren’t a lot of people applying,” she added.
Billings attributes the issue to smaller generations in contrast with the baby boomers as well as housing shortages.
“Regular people can’t find housing and rents,” the town manager said.
Things are a bit rosier in Ellsworth.
“Overall, we have had pretty good luck filling vacancies,” said Ellsworth City Manager Glenn Moshier. “Some have proven more challenging than others. For the most part the applicant pools have not been huge, but we have had some very qualified applicants.”
Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard, who has been in municipal work managing towns for over 40 years, said workers departing local government jobs for careers that offer work-at-home options has been another issue.
“Police work has gotten more challenging, more dangerous with the explosion of fentanyl use/abuse, and the negativity surrounding it in some areas at the national level have resulted in fewer people going into it,” Lessard said. “We are competing in a limited pool. Firefighter/paramedics are also scarce and fewer are training for a career path that is high-risk.”
Adding a layer of complication to all of this is the current distrust of government, which has always existed at a national level but can be seen now in town offices and city halls.
“In general people are more distrustful of the government,” Conlow said. “Politics are always local and the hyperpartisan, political discourse once seen at the federal level has trickled to local government. Generally, hyperpartisan politics have eroded confidence in the work of local government and its officials and employees.”
“What makes this more interesting is that there seems to be general agreement on this matter, except we don’t know how to change it,” Conlow said. “I think many people serving, whether they are elected or appointed, get tired of working in that environment. Local government serves as the first line of government, so it is often local government officials that take the brunt of people’s distrust in all branches of government.”
Lessard said she sees a lack of respect for government in general.
“That level of respect is something that has decreased over time,” Lessard said. “Not without reason in some areas. But it has made it a tougher place to work overall. All that said, local government is really where people turn when things are at their worst or their best. We help people. I can’t imagine doing anything else other than working in the public and trying to make things better.”
One issue contributing to a shortage of town managers in particular is that the University of Maine-Orono canceled its master’s degree program for public administration due to budget issues, according to Conlow.
Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher is on the board for the Hancock County Planning Commission, which has been hunting for an executive director for months. He said Maine needs the University of Southern Maine or University of Maine to resume a master’s degree program for planners.
“USM canceled their program during the LePage administration and now we have no pipeline in the state,” Fisher said.
For some, public work is a calling.
“I wish I had known before I started in this field 40-plus years ago that I would still love it all these years later,” Lessard said. “It is way more than just a job.”