August 18, 2019
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Integrating immigrants into Maine’s workforce benefits us all

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Students Sindy Godoy Escobar (left) and Stephan Tchoupou work with instructor Paul Froman at a Southern Maine Community College EMT training course designed especially for new Mainers in South Portland, Feb. 23, 2017.

While some Maine industries continue to struggle to fill their open jobs, others are thriving by actively recruiting and supporting our newest Mainers — immigrants from around the world — as their skilled employees. Maine should expand training and welcoming programs for these immigrants to help facilitate their integration into our economic and social communities.

According to Pine Tree Watch, Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds, owners of clothing-manufacturing company American Roots in Westbrook, faced the same problem troubling many Maine business — they couldn’t find enough workers who were skilled in their trade. To get the workers they needed, they worked with Dory Waxman, Ben’s mother, to create a 16-week training program for professional stitchers and advertised through Portland Adult Education.

Their program, Common Threads, has attracted almost exclusively immigrant workers. Although anyone is welcome, native Mainers have been uninterested and as a result the program teaches both professional stitching and basic work-relevant English language skills. Seventy-four new Mainers have completed the program and dozens now work for American Roots as well as other Maine textile companies like Angelrox and Sea Bags Maine — and they have far more interested trainees than they can serve. Ben Waxman made the role of this immigrant workforce in their business’ success clear: “Without this immigrant workforce, there is no company. There’s no revenue,” he told Pine Tree Watch.

[Editorial: The numbers are in. They suggest Maine needs to focus on attracting immigrants.]

These kinds of programs are excellent models for Maine’s development. However, they are difficult to implement for many reasons.

First, there are structural barriers such as funding. The Common Threads program is funded by cobbling together resources from self-funding and small grants. Portland’s New Mainers Resource Center receives $75,000 in annual funding from the state, but that’s insufficient to fund the kinds of training that would be most helpful to integrate new Mainers into our industry.

But beyond these structural barriers, there are less obvious social barriers as well. Recent research investigating European attitudes toward immigrants in their communities suggested that three primary factors predicted whether communities were welcoming and supportive of asylees and refugees: perceived economic threat, humanitarian concerns and prejudice toward Muslims. Many of our new Mainers are Muslim and their differences in religious belief have been the target of prejudice in their new communities. That underlying bias might result in barriers to creating and supporting these kinds of programs.

Importantly, these kinds of programs themselves might help address these structural and social barriers. First, there’s no question that training and credentialing programs that help immigrants integrate produce economic benefits for a community. Immigrants are not an economic threat but an incredible economic benefit. Further, research demonstrates that more diverse workplaces are more productive and successful. These programs can pay for themselves in economic growth.

But perhaps more importantly, these kinds of programs can help build cooperation and encourage interactions across cultural and religious backgrounds. A large body of research shows that when we cooperate across cultural backgrounds toward common goals we can reduce prejudice and discrimination in our communities.

[Immigrants are needed to fill Maine’s workforce gap. Here’s what’s getting in the way.]

As Mainers, we should work to create programs and spaces like these at the state and regional level to help new Mainers contribute their skills to our common economic and social communities. LD 647, An Act to Attract, Educate, and Retain New State Residents to Strengthen the Workforce sponsored by Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, is an excellent example of the kinds of steps we can take. This bill would expand the funding of the New Mainers Resource Center and create a similar center in Lewiston. These centers would support language acquisition and credentialing — helping to fill serious needs in health care and to support growing Maine industries.

The Maine Legislature should both pass LD 647 or similar measures, and work to appropriate the necessary funding. This year in the Legislature there will be many worthy programs to fund and not enough resources to fund them. However, programs that help our newest Mainers become a part of our community more smoothly are worth the investment both for our state’s economy, and for the strength of our communities.

Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Correction

An earlier version of this column said the Immigrant Welcome Center receives $75,000 in state funding. The New Mainers Resource Center receives this funding.



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