November 18, 2017
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Immigrants are needed to fill Maine’s workforce gap. Here’s what’s getting in the way

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Updated:
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Mohamud Barre, executive director of the Somali Culture and Development Association of Maine holds a bouquet of Somali and American flags outside the Islamic Society of Portland in this 2013 file photo.

Maine’s most pressing employment problem isn’t that it has too many people looking for work. Its real problem is that there just aren’t enough workers — a dilemma that will only get worse as more Mainers leave the workforce in the coming years.

That’s a key premise from a yet-to-be-released study by Coastal Enterprises Inc. — a nonprofit specializing in economic development that has an arm dedicated to helping new Americans start and grow businesses. The report argues that the state’s best bet to meet its employment demands will be to encourage immigration.

It’s the latest in a number of reports in recent years to conclude that the state needs more people to keep its economy afloat. It also reinforces points raised by BDN Maine’s #EconomyProject, which showed that the most viable solution to fill that workforce gap is to do a better job of welcoming immigrants and helping them join Maine’s workforce.

[MORE: Read our multimedia project on ways the state can attract more immigrants]

Previous analyses showed it to be somewhere between highly unlikely and statistically impossible for Mainers to fill that workforce gap by having more children or by erasing the current annual net defection of young adults to other states. There just aren’t enough people of child-rearing age or outgoing young adults to solve the problem.

The new report shows the state’s unemployment rate at 4 percent and dropping, with a low of 2.7 percent in its most populous county, Cumberland. Accepting a bit of statistical wiggle room to account for some people who simply quit looking for work and are not technically counted as “unemployed,” those numbers are still within the range economists describe as “full employment.”

The state’s Department of Labor predicts Maine will add 14,000 new payroll positions by 2022. That number comes on top of another 109,000 positions to be vacated by 2032, created by a huge gap between the number of older workers due to retire and the lesser number of younger Mainers coming of working age.

This is all with a workforce that’s only about 700,000 people deep.

But despite commonly cited U.S. Census Bureau figures showing Maine immigrants to be, on average, younger and more educated than native-born citizens, they face significant barriers that preventing them from getting work and helping the state overcome its workforce crisis.

The latest CEI study goes into detail describing several of those barriers, using extensive interviews with not only new Mainers themselves, but also with local corporate recruiters, human resources managers and education professionals.

Those barriers are compiled here:

Recognition of foreign credentials and degrees

The ultimate Catch 22 for immigrants is that whatever they did in their native country isn’t widely accepted as valid experience in the U.S. And they can’t get valid experience here without showing some kind of work history or credentials.

“Every employer asks, ‘Where have you worked before here in America?’ But the truth is — we are new here in America. … It’s a challenge for us,” one new Mainer said, according to CEI.

Employers expressed justifiable concerns that it’s difficult to verify credentials or degrees from foreign countries, and the costs to either research those documents or have local university officials review transcripts for transferability are often more than either hiring managers or job applicants say they can afford.

One immigrant who spoke to researchers said he was a truck driver overseas, but was required to spend a year in Maine and spend $6,000 to attend a five-week training course before he could seek similar work here. Another said he had a diploma and 10 years of experience as a fitness and martial arts instructor in his previous home country, but would need a year’s worth of American training to continue in that line of work in Maine.

Language

According to the report, all stakeholders interviewed agreed that limited English proficiency was the “most significant employment barrier for immigrants, both skilled and unskilled.”

One immigrant with a post secondary degree from the University of Southern Maine said his speech remained a problem: “We are judged as not qualified because we speak English with an accent.”

In other cases, employers looking for workers for even entry level jobs said they need a certain minimum threshold of English proficiency because for basic safety reasons. Employees at manufacturing plants and hotels, for instance, need to be able to communicate emergency response or evacuation protocols in English, for instance.

University and community college courses often require what one counselor described to researchers as “advanced academic language,” a step beyond the basic level of English communication one might need to pursue one of those aforementioned entry level jobs, and another limitation toward seeking American credentials.

Transportation

People fleeing from oppressive governments or humanitarian crises are often moving with just the clothes on their back. They certainly aren’t bringing cars and trucks with them, and buying a personal vehicle is a major up-front investment for someone who is already struggling to get financially settled in a new country.

As a result, many immigrants and refugees find themselves limited to jobs they can either walk to or find along public transportation routes, which can be unreliable and are only available in certain urban areas.

Even when a new Mainer has managed to obtain a car, it must often be shared by several family members, making it hard for each person to get where they need to go on time.

Lack of experience with U.S. employers

American employers are accustomed to seeing applicants speak confidently — almost brag — about their abilities. The CEI report found what it called a “cultural dissonance around self-promotion” between new Mainers and their native-born counterparts.

Immigrants and refugees who grew up in cultures that placed high values on humility struggle to sell themselves to American hiring managers.

Employers who were successful attracting immigrant employees reported to CEI researchers they had to work harder to identify the strengths of those candidates: “It’s all about asking the right questions and really listening to the answers. … The best candidates are the ones you discover through a conversation — a back and forth that creates a connection and a realization you need them on your team.”

Many of the immigrants’ home cultures also place greater emphasis on family needs than professional needs, so new Mainers may think little of missing work to help a family member with a problem, not fully realizing that work is often considered the higher priority here.

Other problems emerge in many employers’ use of computer-based applications as a screening process before face-to-face interviews. Immigrants may not fully understand the acronyms used or questions being asked of them, and as a result struggle to get past the application phase.

Racism and discrimination

One immigrant USM graduate told researchers that, after applying unsuccessfully for several internships, changed his resume to feature a more “American-sounding” name “just to see what would happen.” Sure enough, one employer who never responded to his original submission — with all the same credentials and work experience, but with a foreign-sounding name — called back to suddenly express interest.

Here’s what a case manager said:

“No one comes out and says it, but race is clearly an issue. The biggest thing I see is grouping everyone together as the same, with comments like, ‛I tried someone before, but it didn’t work out’ or ‛I just get so many applications with African names that I don’t even look at them; they all seem the same.’ That’s someone [who] said it out loud. These are things that are so engrained in us, we may not even notice it as racism.”

In its report, CEI argued in part that the state government should launch an Office of New Americans to serve a central hub agency in dealing with breaking down these barriers, among other things. In its Economy Project, the BDN made the case for a similar office to be established at the municipal level in Portland, where about 10,000 of the state’s 47,000 total immigrants live, and Mayor Ethan Strimling is pursuing the measure.

From the report:

“While intermediaries in Maine are addressing some of these barriers, it is clear that programs of any scale will need additional resources and a cross-sector commitment to immigrant integration.  A streamlined system of labor intermediaries, service providers, government agencies, and employers would improve employment outcomes and create a strong talent pipeline to replace retiring workers and help sustain Maine’s economy.”

Skeptics may argue the onus is on immigrants to bridge the gap, by becoming more fluent in English or obtaining more easily verified professional credentials, for instance.

CEI argues in its report that it would benefit Maine to invest in helping them do so, with a massive labor force shortage the alternative.

“With a concerted effort, Maine can meet the rapidly growing demand for labor in the state by tapping this underutilized resource, and thereby strengthen the economic future for all Mainers.”


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