Opinion: Our local economy needs to better incorporate global trade

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May is World Trade Month in the United States, and Maine is hosting its very own Trade Day this week. Now is an ideal moment for Maine’s industries to reflect on the state’s global impact, eyeing opportunities for growth in the future.

While Maine is (rightly) known for its local communities, small businesses and mom-and-pop shops serving lobster, blueberries and everything in between, even many Mainers don’t realize how international our economy has become over the last decade. From imports to exports, the Maine economy is deeply connected to the rest of the world, which relies on Maine products like we rely on foreign goods (aircraft parts and petroleum spirits come to mind).

Even exporters like Puritan Medical Products, where I work, can lose sight of Maine’s global impact. But it is profound: Our state exports more than $1 billion in goods annually to Canada alone, not to mention the likes of China, Malaysia, Japan and Italy. Every year, Maine exporters send billions of dollars worth of “Made in the USA” products to the rest of the world, supporting about 18,000 jobs. Other countries rely on us for transportation equipment, computers and other electronics, and marine goods like fish, among other exports.

Mainers and other Americans often associate the state with seafood, but there is more to our economy than cod or oysters. How about mineral fuels and oils? Or paper? Or nuclear machinery?

Without trade, we are very weak indeed. At my company, a substantial amount of our business is done with international customers, who rely on us for a wide range of swabs and other products with various applications. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we became North America’s largest manufacturer of COVID-19 testing swabs – that didn’t happen because of the U.S. market alone. While we are proud to source and manufacture our swabs in America to serve U.S. customers, sectors like diagnostics, forensics and genetics are truly global. That’s why we are currently hiring to serve even more markets abroad.

By opening doors to foreign markets, family-owned companies with humble beginnings (like ours) can experience unprecedented business expansion while fueling job creation right here at home. Innovators can serve customers and clients in every corner of the world, without losing sight of their roots. Trade makes Maine strong.

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Any single business is part of a much bigger picture. Even in the first year of the pandemic, Maine industries managed to stay afloat because of the export economy. Most of the state’s 2020 sales were to entities outside of Maine (exported sales), totaling more than $84 billion. The reliance of other states and other countries on Maine saved countless businesses and jobs in communities like Portland or Guilford when we needed it the most. Only about 41% of all 2020 sales were to entities within Maine, according to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, although they remain important.

Exporters cannot rest on their laurels. The post-pandemic economy will depend on evolution, with Maine industries continuing to make a splash in global markets through innovation. Taking advantage of not only our natural resources, but also our work ethic and resilience, we can close the import-export gap. While many Maine exporters have succeeded in recent years, our state still imports about twice as much as we export, meaning that there is significant room for growth. Our state is a bottom-10 exporter in the country, and there’s no reason why we should lag behind Delaware, Rhode Island or Idaho.

Why can’t Maine rise up the ranks? Given our rapid population growth since 2020 and even before, our state is gaining new innovators by the month. From industries like specimen collection to fishing and lumber, there are still domestic and foreign markets that have yet to benefit from Maine ingenuity – new and old.

As we celebrate trade this May, there is time to recognize Maine’s integral role in the global marketplace and to evolve. Let’s achieve new strength with trade partners. Our economy depends on it.


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