Commentary

To be competitive, Maine’s young workers need a training wage

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In today’s world, and especially in rural Maine, finding work without prior experience can be tough, particularly for teenagers and young adults venturing into the job market for the first time. Nationally, the unemployment rate among teenagers is over double that of adults, at about 13 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

While employment during the teen years is rarely an economic necessity, employment at this time in a young adult’s life provides many opportunities and opens doors for higher-level positions down the road.

For many, this is an important stepping stone into adulthood, teaching important life lessons such as how to be responsible, accountable and self-reliant. It’s a way for students to learn how to balance their priorities while also gaining concrete experience.

Employment also affords teenagers the opportunity to learn more about basic economics, personal finance and the value of a dollar earned with one’s own hands. The money earned gives teens the ability to pay for their own wants and needs, such as the ‘right’ sneakers, freedom in the form of gasoline and possibly to save for future college expenses.

Even the process of filling out application forms and enduring the nervousness and uncertainty of an interview provides vital experience, yielding increased preparedness for later in life when the stakes are much higher.

Most importantly, when we engage our youth in the business environment, they learn skills, see their efforts appreciated and learn that they can add value to those working alongside them which builds their self-esteem.

However, here in Maine, we have set a heavy roadblock in a teen’s path to employment with the new minimum wage law that passed on the November 2016 ballot.

This new law, which was meant to target those needing to earn a “living wage,” is ratcheting our minimum wage up over the next three years until it reaches $12 an hour in 2020.

While I voted against this measure and don’t believe it was the right way to make Mainers more prosperous, I also don’t believe proponents of increased minimum wage were targeting the teenage workforce, as they are dependent on their parents, live at home and don’t usually step into a job with the same basic skill set as an adult.

This is why I recently submitted LR 2707, “An Act To Implement a Training Wage in Maine.” Under this bill, employers would have the option of offering individuals less than 18 years of age a training wage equivalent to the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25.

Given the looming, dramatic minimum wage increase and current lack of training wage, our small, local businesses will not be capable of training the workforce of tomorrow. The amount of time it takes to train an inexperienced minor is significant, and yet the Maine economy desperately needs these young people to learn basic skills and work ethic from our hardworking entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Additionally, under our current wage structure, these unskilled, unproven teens will have to compete against adults for the same wage, yet adults won’t have the same restrictions, work visa requirements and scheduling limitations as teenagers do.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a group specializing in public policy research, states that, “People who worked a part-time job as teenagers enjoy both higher earnings and lower rates of unemployment later in life. Creating a lower training wage for teenagers will help them enter the labor force and develop the skills and work ethic necessary to advance to better paying jobs.”

Unfortunately, in a preliminary ruling, the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group consisting of leadership from both chambers, denied the submission of this bill for the 2018 session, mostly along party lines. However, I feel strongly that a training wage will expand job opportunities for Maine’s youth, and have appealed that decision.

Getting that first job is an important part of growing up and of taking part in civic life. Gainful employment opportunities for young adults are an important factor in the health of rural Maine communities and our economic viability.

About Lisa Keim

Sen. Lisa Keim, a Republican representing Senate District 18, serves as Chair of the Judiciary Committee and as a member of the State and Local Government Committee.

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