Like other health care providers, the Aroostook Agency on Aging is having a hard time finding enough workers, according to Steve Farnham, the group’s executive director.
“We really struggle for entry-level workers in positions as personal care attendants or home health specialists,” Farnham said at a March 31 conference at Northern Maine Community College.
Elder care workers are among the hardest jobs to fill in Aroostook County, along with nurses and nursing assistants — a scarcity that poses a problem for the region’s aging population, which may need more health care and home assistance in the coming decades.
At the same time, Farnham noted, Aroostook County has a “large migrant workforce, mostly Hispanic,” which supports one of the largest broccoli harvests on the East Coast.
“They kind of fly under the radar,” but they may also be able to work as nursing home assistants, personal care workers or in other areas of the local economy, Farnham suggested at the conference.
“It strikes me that these are hardworking, family people who are sending money home someplace else. Really what they’re looking for is a better way of life, and it seems they could find it here,” Farnham said.
“What are the immigration barriers that would prevent those people from becoming permanent residents?” he asked. “And is that something we might be able to look at doing here?”
Questions like that are what prompted Northern Maine Community College President Tim Crowley to convene the conference, to start a conversation with leaders of area businesses and organizations about being proactive in the face of continuing workforce decline.
Maine’s aging workforce is retiring faster than younger workers can replace them, economists have said. This will create a workforce shortage of more than 100,000 people by 2032, according to the Maine Department of Labor. One way to close that gap is for the state to do a better job attracting new residents, a Bangor Daily News project found in December.
Crowley said they want to consider ways to welcome pretty much anyone who wants to work hard and find a home here, including migrant workers, refugees, college students from abroad and transplants from other parts of the United States.
Even as paper mills close and some people struggle to find work, employers from a variety of sectors in Aroostook County and the state say they are concerned about the future. Since 2013, about 7 percent of Aroostook County’s workers have retired or left the labor force, according to data from the Maine Department of Labor, and since 2010, more than 1,400 residents between the ages of 20 and 44 have left.
Maine has taken in immigrants for more than 150 years, including Scandinavians recruited to Aroostook County, French Canadian and European immigrants, and more recent refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere, said John Dorrer, a longtime Maine economist who also is a researcher affiliated with Georgetown University.
Today’s economy is vastly different than it was 100 or 50 years ago, but in ways both good and bad, Dorrer said.
“Who would have ever thought that you could take the equivalent of 30 football fields of hot greenhouses in Madison, Maine, producing tomatoes sold as far south as North Carolina?” he said, referring to year-round tomato grower Backyard Farms.
The 10-year-old tomato business illustrates one of the major fault lines between the old and new economies, Dorrer said.
“There’s 200 people working there — about as many as are being lost at Madison Paper Mill. The jobs at the mill pay $38 an hour, and the jobs at Backyard Farms pay $16 an hour,” he said.
Likewise, many of the in-demand jobs in home health or nursing assisting pay above minimum wage but not necessarily enough for a family to live off — and they can be physically demanding and emotionally challenging, Dorrer said. Personal care attendants working at the Aroostook Agency on Aging start at between $8.50 and $10.50 per hour, depending on whether the employee already has one of several training certificates. At The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, the starting range for a certified nursing assistant is $10.20 to $15.30 per hour, depending on their experience.
Dorrer argues that jobs such as home health aides, nursing assisting and farmhands may need to have their standards and wages raised in the coming years. That would solve some of the employee retention and turnover problems seen in nursing and home health fields, he said.
At the same time, growing the overall population should be the long-term goal for rural communities, as the Washington County town of Milbridge has done, suggested Tae Chong, a business adviser with Coastal Enterprises Inc. who also attended the conference.
About a decade ago, several Mexican and central American families working as seasonal harvesters in Down East Maine’s wild blueberry industry decided to stay and since have helped grow the town, Chong said.
“They have a restaurant, a car dealership, a mechanic shop, and the community has embraced the Latino population. Because of that there’s now a lobster production plant because there’s a large Latino population that’s willing to stay,” said Chong, an immigrant himself who settled in southern Maine as a 7-year-old from Korea.
Today, about 6 percent of Milbridge’s 1,300 residents are of Latino descent, most of them tracing their roots to the central Mexican state of Michoacan. Their kids, the next generation, account for about 25 percent of students the local school district, according to Jennifer Atkinson, an immigration lawyer writing in The Working Waterfront, the newspaper of the Island Institute.
Thanks to schools and colleges, Aroostook County has seen more foreign students come and go in recent years — and at least one has stayed, Andre Anderson, a Jamaican-born admissions director at Northern Maine Community College who already calls the rest of Maine “downstate.”
Originally from the west-central Jamaican state of Manchester, Anderson was recruited to play soccer at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where he ended up finding a community that offered a “home away from home” and led to friendships he still maintains in the St. John Valley.
Five years after graduating with a behavioral science degree, Anderson and his wife have settled in Fort Fairfield and started a family. Among the only complaints is that they have to drive to southern Maine to find grocers that carry Jamaican and Caribbean food staples.
“I’ve had a couple of experiences here and there that were less than warranted,” he said. “But 99 percent of it has been great for myself and my family.”