Maine Sparks: Helping Maine People Thrive

Maine Sparks was a proposal conceived by the Leadership Maine Tau class workforce development team. It envisioned a campaign to help young and adult learners discover what sparks them, align those interests to the competencies of in-demand careers in Maine, and explore the learning pathways toward those careers.

The (audacious) vision: Every person in Maine will find what sparks them, act upon it, and find work that is satisfying, in areas that are in demand, here in Maine.

Maine Sparks could be adopted, cultivated, and marketed through an online media campaign and become a primary portal for young and adult learners to be exposed to the many inspiring job paths available in Maine’s next economy.

Helping young people find good jobs they’ll love
Helping employers find great employees

Our Story

Julie told us this story:

I’m going to tell you the story of Jamie.

Jamie is a 15 year old I met recently. He was sitting on the couch, down in the dumps because of his grades.

He had failed his career development class and was about to lose the opportunity to play sports. He was asked to interview someone outside his family for a job he was interested in, but he didn’t finish the paper on time.

I asked, “Why? What are you interested in?” His response was: “I didn’t know where to go. I was asked to look at a job opportunity outside the family.” His father and grandfather were in the police force. He didn’t even know what else was possible.

He asked his teacher what to do. She didn’t have any guidance, so he didn’t complete the project.

He really didn’t know what to do.

Our Charge

“Create an initiative that will both address the comprehensive view of education, taking into account and exploring the inter-relations among the key pressure points — from early childhood to higher education — and help provide a comprehensive remedy that will address Maine’s workforce needs and chronically low salaries.”

When Julie told us this story, we were in the process of trying to determine the best direction for this project, the best place to put our energy to support our charge, which focuses on preparing young people for their future … to help them find the high-demand jobs in Maine that are currently going unfilled due to lack of educational preparation and experience.

We looked at a lot of different approaches …

  • Early childhood education
  • K-12 education reform
  • Reducing the State’s dropout rate
  • Improving the graduation rate of post-secondary education
  • Development of Maine’s workforce

… but we always came back to Jamie’s story: how do we help young people find their place in the job market? We knew where we had to go.

Transformation from the Traditional Economy

What Jamie and his family knew about was the “old” Maine economy. But over the past several decades, Maine has undergone a near complete makeover of its manufacturing base.

Industries that flourished in Maine through most of the 20th century have either shrunk significantly or are gone forever: textiles (shoes in particular), paper, leather products, logging and other forest products.

In the last 25 years, several defense installations were closed and shipbuilding operations at one of Maine’s largest private employers were downsized significantly.

It seems as though our collective response is to focus on the people who have lost their jobs. But we forget that a young person’s frame of reference is attached to those opportunities that have gone away.

When the mill, the base or the farm closes, the employment opportunity that most young people in that area had always anticipated fulfilling – a job that a high school graduate could find in the town where he or she grew up – also disappears.

That gap needs to be addressed. We need to show young people where the new jobs are and we need to do a better job of encouraging them to pursue those jobs.

All of this made us consider:

  • What will be the in-demand jobs of the future here in Maine?
  • How do we help young people learn about those jobs when they may not have exposure to anything beyond what was once available in their community?
  • If young people are aware of these new opportunities, why aren’t they choosing them?
  • Do they not yet know what interests them, and so, what they want to do for work?
  • How do we Spark them?

What Will Be the High-demand Jobs of the Future?

We reviewed a variety of websites that look at the issue of job training and job development, most notably the Maine Department of Labor and the Maine Employers Initiative.

Our of the complex economic data, we developed formula to identify a cross-section of jobs that will be in demand — well-paying, most openings, most want our children to be striving toward — over the next two decades.

We then stratified the list of jobs based upon the level of education necessary to perform it.

We then matched these high-demand jobs with the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*Net occupations website to publish a simplified list of high-demand jobs in Maine.

Then, we got to the crux of our project: finding better ways to communicate this knowledge to young people in Maine.

  • Do they know that these job opportunities exist?
  • Do they know that they are in high demand?
  • What can we do to encourage them to pursue a career in those fields?

We want to communicate in a way that speaks to them.

Leading the transition to the new economy

Whereas educational institutions are developing new programs to provide training for emerging professions, we looked (in vain) for organizations that were providing Maine students with individualized virtual pathways to connect their particular interests with the opportunities that lie ahead for them.

We believe that helping young people get familiar with and excited about job opportunities that may not been part of their expectations (or certainly not what their parents’ might have expected for them) is a real opportunity for Maine education.

Current programs focused on career development

Many existing Maine programs focus on career development, such as:

  • Collaborations between businesses and universities (such as nursing programs, workforce development special needs, mentors in the elementary, middle and high schools, class adoptions by businesses, volunteers, etc.)
  • Attempts to align school and Career and Technical Education (CTE) center schedules (this alignment of schedules is now a mandate from the State legislature)
  • Retraining programs in community colleges (such as retraining for mill workers at Northern Maine Community College)
  • Building Bridges – sharing resources among teachers around the country via the Internet
  • Chambers of Commerce – partnering with education at all levels
  • Job Corps has its focus on volunteers linking community service and education
  • Early College programs – universities and community colleges collaborating with school divisions to provide access to college courses while the students are in high school; working to make the courses more affordable and more accessible to all students, not just the college bound

Establishing an integrated vision, leadership, and system

The following organizations are known for their leadership in areas specific to their own constituencies:

  • State Department of Education (DOE) policies – updating outdated requirements in order to focus on lifelong learning and career preparation
  • Department of Labor – expanding integration with DOE
  • Employer collaborations – like Maine Employers’ Initiative at the Maine Development Foundation
  • Maine School Counselor Association
  • School and college superintendents and administrators
  • Educate Maine

We discussed how more integration across these organizations could provide greater opportunities to bring resources to scale across constituencies. We also asked the question: how do we collectively build the capacity to connect with those we’re depending on to build the future of our state: Maine youth?

Creating a single system to connect with individual learners

A single, overarching system could unite these and impact directly Maine youth, workers, and companies. In order to do arrive at such as system, we’d need:

  • A tool to help youth explore exciting jobs that are in demand — by themselves, anytime, anywhere.
  • Organizations working together to achieve the goal of building a skilled workforce through:
    • advocacy
    • program development
    • policy
    • curriculum
    • outreach through social media/ internet
    • helping businesses benefit from investments in education
  • An organization committed to taking on this opportunity

Lighting a Spark

Our recommendation: First, find what sparks young people

We felt that providing a ‘Spark’ to encourage students to consider the jobs that will be waiting for them when they finish school, across a range of education levels, is critically important.

Then, how do we help young people find those jobs? How do we open a young person’s mind to possibilities? How do we meet young people where they are?

We were inspired by the work of the late Peter Benson, founder of the Search Institute in Minneapolis, who wrote a book called: Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers.

Our project was based on the premise that with the support of adult champions, young people can discover what interests them. Then, if we as a State want them to be ready to assume these jobs in the coming decades, we adults need to do a better job, now, of showing them how to match their interests with these jobs.

So, rather than work supporting an existing program, we decided to focus on students as individuals and communicate in a manner with which they are most comfortable and in a way that empowers them to explore multiple possibilities.

So, since we can’t have adult professionals visit every student, we decided to use online social media to place stories of people who love their work right in front of them.


So, we created a prototype website called to help students explore high-demand jobs that might interest them and meet real Mainers doing those jobs.

We decided that a browsable collection of online videos by adults talking about work they do and why they love doing it would be a bridge to help students focus on the jobs they might love, too.

Here’s an example of what how we envisioning students would use the site.

Hi, my name is Meredith and I’m a n grader at Islandtown high school. I just got my laptop last week, and one of the links on the first screen to, so I decided to take a look. …

First, I looked around a bit to find out what they meant by “sparks.” I saw a button called “What sparks you?” and when I clicked, I found a survey asking me what I like to do best. I answered the 12 questions, added up my totals, and found out that career counselors consider me “enterprising” and “social”. Well, I wouldn’t use those words exactly but, well, that’s true! …

When I clicked on Enterprising, I found a video of a guy from Portland who is an event manager for his own company. It was interesting to watch.

I decided I wanted to learn a little more, so I clicked on the link to the detailed job description for meeting, convention, and event planners, and it was packed with information, especially the things that are important in that kind of work. …

It sounded really interesting, so I looked around online, and I found people in my town who are organizing a benefit concert this summer, right down on the waterfront! …

So I sent a note to the organizers to see if I can volunteer.

I wouldn’t have even thought of looking in this direction if I hadn’t seen that link on my laptop.

Bringing Maine Sparks alive

So, how could we help young people discover and use a service like Maine Sparks?

Career education and guidance

Through career counseling?

  • Connect the state’s career education recommendations with videos of professionals.
  • We understand that guidance counselor contact time is limited.
  • Career guidance is highly dependent on parents. Sometime, career planning doesn’t begin until after high school.

Opportunities for success

  • There’s an opportunity to reach youth earlier on a “gut” level to inspire career goals leveraging a variety of resources and media that can be delivered state-wide independent of or in conjunction with local resources.
  • Ours is a proactive initiative that takes a long-range view (10 years out) to position, educate, and inspire future careers. It empowers the youth to explore multiple opportunities.

Our vision for a desirable future

This is our vision:

Every kid in Maine will find what sparks them, act upon it, and find work that is satisfying, in areas that are in demand.

The Maine Department of Education, Department of Labor, education advocates, and businesses will collaborate to ensure this happens by: combining forces and resources, understanding the issues, defining the vision, organizing methods to get there.

We propose that become a prominent resource on the laptops provided by the state to 7th and 8th graders. will become adopted, cultivated, and marketed through a social media campaign to become a primary portal for middle/high school students to be exposed to the many inspiring job paths available in Maine in our future.

Next steps

So: what does the road ahead look like? When we started working on this project last fall, we talked quite a bit about whether we could create something that would ‘live on’ after Leadership Maine.

Ultimately we had to focus on the task at hand, which we realized was as much about working together as it was about our product — so we put those thoughts about our project’s future to the back of our minds.

As we reach the end of our structured time together, though, we have gone back to this question, and we’ve identified and taken some steps that we think could push this project beyond the Blue Team of Leadership Maine.

There are two things we’ve been thinking about: Perfecting the tools and making them sustainable.

Perfecting the tools

First: we know that what we’ve created is truly just the beginning of what is possible. If we were going to continue our time together and work on Maine Sparks, there are some steps we think would help make this tool better.

We are not middle-school students.

We want to come up with the right language and flow to match this audience. We believe the tool needs to be tested with this audience, specifically focus groups in classrooms and other settings, with different ages.

We are not professional videographers.

We recognize the value of inviting all Maine adults to share their video answers to our Maine Sparks questions; the natural, unedited quality of crowdsourced clips would reinforce their authenticity to kids looking at the site.

However, we would also periodically select a handful of the most inspiring spark videos and cut them together — with professionally-shot video — into more highly-crafted packages that show actual workplaces and brings the featured jobs to life.

We could connect more with existing educational initiatives.

  • Maine Learning Technology Initiative – 7th graders receive state-provided laptops
  • Maine Learning Results – specific, existing career education curricula:
  • We would want to research and cultivate links to what’s already being done.

We could expand our initial connection with Search Institute, developers of the Sparks model. This organization is creating curriculum specifically to be utilized in this kind of support for young people. We’d like to explore how this could be rolled-out in Maine.

But, there’s one thing we can definitely do right now.

Invitation to the Tau class

Most important: more videos!

  • You are all invited to help us with this process.
  • We’d like to film 1 minute videos with each of you, answering the three questions we posed to our other professionals!
  • This would help us grow our library of resources for kids.

Make it sustainable

For MaineSparks to be successful, it needs a home to grow and thrive. We are seeking an organization to sponsor and move it forward.

Unanswered questions

  • What is our own role in the next phase: we could potentially be advisors (all or some of us) and/or work on the site in some consultant capacity.
  • Security: We don’t know what the security implications are of having a more interactive process within the site, so kids can ask questions and professionals who have done videos can answer them, etc.
  • How could we maximize the impact of MaineSparks through social media?

So, with your help, we can make this project a reality!

A sneak peek

In which our Maine Sparks volunteers tell us why they do what they do, what they love about it, and why they chose to stay in Maine to do it.


Team members

  • Newell Augur, Attorney, Augur & Associates, P.A.
  • Julie Buffington, Area Retail Leader, KeyBank Maine
  • Jay Collier, Founder & President, The Compass LLC
  • Carolyn Crosby, SVP, HR & Education Director, Camden National Corporation
  • Donald Crump Karst, ResNet/Telecom Director, Husson University
  • Maggie Drummond, Program Director, Maine Development Foundation
  • Bridgett Ireland, Director of Human Resources, The Charlotte White Center
  • Sue McCullough, Associate Dean, Director, University of Maine Hutchinson Center
  • Dan Nadeau, Director of Facilities, Bath Iron Works
  • Stefanie Trice Gill, Consultant

All images herein are covered by Creative Commons licenses.