PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- Maine's economy is expected to see steady growth this year, providing an opportunity for the state to begin tackling the challenges it will face in the future as its population continues to age, a former state economist said Tuesday.
Last year was a turning point for Maine toward post-recession recovery and that will continue this year as long as the national economy remains steady, said Charlie Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service. But the state needs to get ahead of the impending demographic challenges now, he said.
"The next few years as we recover are the time we ought to begin preparing for the demographic situation that will face us in spades at the end of this decade and throughout the next decade," Colgan told about 200 business leaders at USM during his annual forecast on the state's economy.
Last year, Maine got back 7,000 of 29,000 jobs lost during the recession, and the state is expected to at least be able to repeat that this year, he said. By the end of 2017, he predicts that 18,000 jobs will be added in Maine, bringing the state close to pre-recession levels.
Colgan expects many of the new jobs over the next several years will be in the leisure and hospital industries, as Portland sees a hotel construction boom. Meanwhile, retail industry growth will stagnate as increasingly more sales take place online, he said.
Maine isn't expected to be hurt as much as the rest of New England by the federal government's decision to end long-term unemployment benefits, he said. But that's in part because many unemployed Mainers have been without work for so long that they don't even qualify for those.
"There's a good news, bad news situation here," Colgan said.
But the future economic health of Maine will depend on how it deals with its demographic challenges, he said. Since 1990, the population of 25- to 44-year olds — those that make up the major part of the workforce — has declined by 20 percent, he said.
That means Maine is coming to a period in which it will rely on the immigration of new workers to see job growth, he said. Reaching 18,000 new jobs by the end of 2017 will depend on 2,400 people moving to the state every year for the next four years.
Colgan called that "blatantly optimistic," but also doable.
"We're a little bit down, we've got some real challenges ... but there's still a lot of innovation, a lot of things we can do," he said.
Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin