When Generations Collide
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
Mathew Starr, Community Development Fellow, reflects on his term of service and his cohort's impact on Maine-Based Organizations.
More people are retiring from Maine’s workforce than entering. That demographic trend, in tandem with a dire affordable housing shortage that prevents most potential out of state transplants from moving here to work, has left many local public service organizations so short of qualified workers they’ve at times been unable to operate. In the midst of such a dire public workforce shortage, the Resilience Corps turned young professionals’ logistical flexibility, malleable skill sets, and youthful enthusiasm into 23,000+ hours of capacity boosts for more than 15 different local non-profit and municipal projects. I think those service hours illuminated a wonderful potential synergy between two groups Mainers rarely (but should more frequently) associate with each other: Maine’s public sector and early-career professionals.
That synergy is in large part rooted in the fact that young people tend to be more flexible than their older counterparts as to where and how they fit into an organization’s operations. Case in point: over the course of this past year, our Small Business Support Fellow, Cat Flaherty, split her time between supporting administrative and communications tasks for the City of Portland’s Housing and Economic Development Department, supporting GPCOG’s events planning team, and providing production support for Maine’s Outdoor Winter Dining campaign. Sans having to schedule her work around inflexible time commitments such as childcare, managing family finances, checking in regularly with supervisees, representing her organization at regional conferences, and/or maintaining a home, Cat had enough spare time around the margins of her workday to take on any task at any time on any amount of notice. For example, one of the leads for Maine Winter Dine’s production team often found on fewer than two days’ notice they needed to scout potential “picturesque” restaurants at which to shoot promotional commercials. Knowing Cat’s schedule and attention would largely be unburdened by the types of time/people sensitive tasks I described above, the project lead felt confident shooting Cat an email or call asking to find potential scenes for a commercial shoot. While the project lead might have eventually been able to find a more tenured employee to fulfill their last-minute request, being able to rely on Cat to frictionlessly complete any task consistently saved them the time and energy necessary to find team members readily able to do the same. In addition to being unrestrained by inflexible commitments upon entering the Corps, Cat hadn’t reached a part of her career in which she had developed strict expectations about what skills and tasks her role would need to entail in order for her to feel properly utilized. As a result, even though many of Cat’s responsibilities had seemingly little to do with each other or her professional background, she was consistently both willing and able to learn from and adjust to feedback in order to effectively complete each of her supervisors’ requests. While Cat had the broadest range of responsibilities in the Corps, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note based on group reflections in our weekly huddles that most of my other fellow corps members (half of which had entered the Corps as their first post-college full-time job) exhibited a similar willingness to learn new tasks in order to fill project-specific capacity gaps.
While filling those capacity gaps across Greater Portland, corps members exhibited a level of enthusiasm about adult life and public sector work. For example, early in my service term, I remember offering, with every drop of genuine enthusiasm in my body, to spend all weekend re-wiring survey logic in order to get a draft of Cumberland County’s public outreach survey done prior to a committee meeting scheduled for the following Tuesday. In response to my enthusiastic plea, my supervisor asked me (almost dumbfoundingly) how I could be so excited to spend such a long block of time completing such a dry task. My answer: After about 23 years of learning about (and being restricted to watching) the political and economic mechanisms that have shaped the American economy and eight more months of watching this country navigate concentric crises of public health, democracy, and climate, no task in the world could’ve been more refreshing than actually doing something to be a part of the response to those crises. Similarly, because Resilience Corps members were so excited to spend time getting to know knowledgeable, engaging public professionals, after both of GPCOG’s staff-wide happy hours we instinctively (and a bit haphazardly, as twenty-somethings are often known to be) tried to convince as many GPCOG staff as we could to come to post-happy hour gatherings at the Portland Zoo (to my knowledge, the first such staff-wide extra gatherings GPCOG staff had participated in). At a moment in history in which existential dread is at an all-time high, I’d guess that it’s invaluable to have people within an organization who both try to bring staff to enjoy each other’s company and remind staff how meaningful it can be to have routine opportunities to address regional issues.
Of course, GPCOG wouldn’t have been able to utilize our flexibility and enthusiasm had they not been able to find a cohort of young professionals who wanted to work in Maine. However, since a workforce shortage usually entails asking employees to complete tasks above or outside of their area of expertise, Maine’s public organizations can sell talented early career folks on being involved in solving public problems farther above their paygrade than those they would help solve anywhere else. Notwithstanding a momentary capacity boost, I’d argue doing so would shape those young professionals’ identities, skill sets, and networks as part and parcel with what uniquely characterizes life in Maine. Personally, as I continue to mold myself as a public professional and a young adult, the foundation of every technical and professional skill I’ve started to develop, as well as my understanding of issues in my personal area of interest, rests upon learning how to conduct equitable outreach, write accessible guidance for complying with federal code, and keep easily-navigable project files in Cumberland County. That time and compassion I invested into supporting Greater Portland has not only led me to develop an emotional connection to the region, but has made the currency of my professional experience notably more relevant (and potentially valuable) to Maine-based organizations than to organizations anywhere else. As a result, the most challenging and potentially fulfilling next steps of my career lie in Maine. Given that eleven of fourteen cohort members are staying to work in Maine post-service (six of whom in some capacity at their former service placements), I would assume a similar process applied to most, if not all, of my cohort peers.
Of course, if you’re running a public sector or public adjacent organization in Maine, I don’t expect you to be reassured if I tried to tell you that a handful of twenty-somethings are an effective means by which to address your capacity deficit. You would also be far more capable than I of explaining why both industry and institution-specific experience are fundamental to efficiently directing (and as a result, completing) your work. However, experience, like any other form of knowledge, is communicable. I think if the inaugural Resilience Corps illustrated one thing, it’s that driven, sharp, growth-oriented young people can turn wise guidance into effective practice. By virtue of our inexperience, we also happen to fill those spaces hyper-attuned to just how cool of a concept life in Maine’s public sector can be. In the midst of a nationwide public health-climate-political crisis, I think that youthful enthusiasm has been more necessary (and helpful) for Greater Portland than anyone would’ve guessed.
About Matthew Starr
Matt grew up in New York City. He graduated from Bates College in 2020 with Bachelor's degrees in Economics and Psychology. While at Bates, he also completed a concentration in Community Engagement and a semester in which he studied at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He sees his work in the Resilience Corps as an opportunity to apply what he learned at Bates about quantitative and qualitative research, critical creative thinking and community engagement to helping GPCOG improve the lives of Mainers. Outside of work, he loves to read, travel and spend time with close friends