A couple of current news stories demonstrate public interest in about five industries in our area, four of which I have a professional relationship with due to my work with the Maine Department of Labor.
These four are Fisher Engineering, which has its origins in the immediate postwar period; IFF (formerly FMC), which I think can trace its lineage back to the 1940s as the Algin Corporation; Back Cove Yachts, which I believe goes back in some form to the 1970s; and Dragon Cement, which is just three years away from turning 100 years old.
The fifth is a proposed mineral mining operation in Warren and Union, which is reminiscent of attempts to establish a nickel mine in Warren about 30 years ago.
Should this mining business be established, no doubt MDOL would have a professional relationship with that business too, because what I am talking about is the need for workers. MDOL is required to offer whatever assistance it can in finding workers, although businesses use these services only on a voluntary basis.
In fact, almost any employer can seek our assistance in finding workers. The only exception I can think of that exists locally is the marijuana trade, because that business is still considered to be illegal by the federal government.
I mention these things because it is a requirement of professional newspapering that we declare all our personal and corporate connections to any institution we might have cause to write about, so that readers are not deceived about what we write and why.
What I do each week, known under the generously broad heading of rampant (occasionally bizarre) opinionating, is no less responsible under this professional code.
In one sense, I could be said to be “in the pocket” of any and all employers, because my bureau is funded largely through the federal taxes these businesses pay. However, in practice there are professional and practical safeguards in place at the department, and in state government generally, to prevent devious relationships and any other suspicious connections between us and employers.
In other words, although I don’t believe I have anything to declare in the way of conflicts of interest, it is always best to be open and clear about the situation. After all, in these trying days of selfishness and suspicion, it seems almost everyone can be accused of all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors at any time and in any way. I invite all such attention, so long as you don’t mind what I have to say about it.
The only thing that might cause outrage to the more sensitive and conspiracy-minded among us is the fact that about four times a year, Dragon buys me breakfast.
I belong to the company’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, a group of volunteers that meets with Dragon managers at the Thomaston town office every few months to provide feedback on any concerns the community might have about the company and its operations. Which is to say, we try to be an information-gathering and advisory group, which is the same role that any decent newspaper would try to fulfill.
Normally at these bountiful breakfast meetings I help myself to a cup of coffee, some fresh fruit, maybe a breakfast sandwich and sometimes a pastry, all of which Dragon pays for.
Actually, even that declaration is not entirely fair. I always have a breakfast sandwich. There’s no “maybe” about it.
My rich professional background does, however, offer some food for thought when talking about the proposed mineral mine in upper Knox County. Back in the ‘90s, I was assigned by this newspaper to report on the Knox Nickel Mine project. This work included talking to representatives of the public, the local government and the mine company.
One thing sticks in my mind about that long process, during which the town of Warren, through its voters, enacted a temporary ban on all mining operations while the local government wrote a set of regulations to be presented to a town meeting. This mine ordinance was eventually put into law by the people of Warren to place clear limits and requirements upon anyone seeking to operate a mine there, and I assume it is the same town ordinance being referred to in current news stories.
But not all activity in connection to the proposed mine was restricted to drafting the ordinance. The company had also made the obvious pitch that an operating mine in Warren would provide well-paying jobs in the area as well as taxes, and there was a strong current of suspicion in town that the mining company was going to offer jobs to certain elected town officials.
People who would normally be thought of as good neighbors suddenly dug trenches and built barricades between themselves and those they felt were trying to benefit from allowing mining. The Courier seriously considered whether such a conflict of interest even existed, and concluded that because of the way ordinances are acted upon by townspeople, not by powerful elected officials, no such conflict could be said to exist.
But there was at least the perception of some kind of conflict of interest, beside which my own humble breakfast sandwich every few months pales into utter insignificance.
Of course, a moment’s thought will demonstrate just how little clout those certain officials actually had as a result of any offer of “well-paying jobs” that might have been made to them. The mine regulation ordinance was passed at the ballot box by a great majority of townspeople, the company that had hoped to establish a commercially viable mineral mine in Warren withdrew its plans, and of course the jobs never materialized.
So, I finally come to my point. I am not sure to what extent discussions about the new mine proposal have also centered around providing jobs for the working population. But from my professional point of view, I do wonder where the people who could fill those new jobs might come from.
Of course, even in a long-term labor shortage such as we now have, employers who can offer higher wages are always likely to attract workers from lower-paying jobs. I am not suggesting a new mine simply could not find any workers. I do suggest these workers would mostly be found from among those already having other jobs, which they would then leave to go mining.
The actual pain of the labor question would probably be felt most by those businesses that could lose their workers to the mine.
In fact, we have already been seeing this pain for a long time in specific occupational sectors that are already hurting because many of their previous workers have indeed gone to other jobs. In particular, I think of food service, government and public services, hospitality, retail, short-term and long-term nursing and education.
Any idea that a workforce for the proposed mine in Warren and Union would simply migrate into our area has to address the inescapable fact that at the moment, there is basically nowhere for them to live. Remember, in 2022 Rockland lost a candidate for police chief and an incumbent harbormaster because neither could find a home they could afford to own around here. There is talk of building some vital workforce housing in the area, but a great quantity is needed and it is possibly years away.
Every time I hear about a new business being planned locally, especially in the occupations I have mentioned, I find myself wincing and wondering where the necessary workforce will come from. When it involves one of those occupations that are already chronically short of staff, I wince even more.
Indeed, there is a dense matrix of difficult circumstances surrounding the whole idea of economic growth and sustainability in our area, and in our country.
Not even four breakfast sandwiches a year have been able to help me come up with any immediate solutions.
David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.