Northern Maine Community College student commencement speaker Erik Lamoreau recounts his struggle with drug addiction and successful recovery during the college's 54th annual commencement exercises at The Forum in Presque Isle in 2019. Also on stage are, from left, NMCC dean of students William Egeler, NMCC president Timothy Crowley, and Maine Community College System president David Daigler. Credit: Courtesy of Anthony Brino

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Ben Hawkins is the program coordinator at the Northeastern Workforce Development Board.

Even before COVID-19, it was well-known that good employees are getting harder to find as much of Maine’s workforce is aging or moving out of state. No doubt these trends will take a lot of effort and time to turn around.

But in the meantime, there is at least one way to mitigate our workforce problem: hiring people in recovery. There are two big reasons why hiring people in recovery can be directly beneficial to an employer. First, it increases the applicant pool. Second, people in recovery often become grateful, driven, and hardworking employees.

It’s easy to recognize that being open to a larger applicant pool means more applicants. Maine has been hit especially hard by addiction and the opioid crisis. Estimates suggest 145,000 people, or roughly 10 percent, of Maine’s population has struggled with substance use disorder or illicit drugs. Many of these people are now in recovery, and yet national figures indicate they are still unemployed at a rate generally double the general population.

Additionally, thanks to resources like the Bangor Area Recovery Network (BARN), the recovery community is tight-knit and well-supported. This means gaining access to a strong network of people who could help find other strong candidates for future openings.

Not only is there potential to find more employees, employees in recovery also often become a grateful, driven and hardworking part of the team. People in recovery are in the process of getting much of life back on track, and a reliable job is central to fulfilling this big goal. It can provide a sense of purpose, a stream of income and a means to feed and house oneself and one’s family. And after empowering a person’s recovery process through employment, their gratitude can, in turn, motivate and empower them to help further their employer’s business.

So, how can an employer take advantage of this untapped labor pool and become more recovery friendly?

There are many steps employers can take to be more recovery friendly, and the best course is ultimately up to each manager. With that said, here are a handful of options to consider:

Employers can decrease restrictions on job applications with criminal records gaps in unemployment. They can view supporting recovery from addiction more similar to recovery from another illness or injury and foster a safe and stable work environment in which employees feel welcome to address professional or personal concerns. Employers can also openly promote prevention and recovery within their place of business and community and have an open dialogue with their nearest recovery community center.

There is one other benefit that, while indirect to any specific employer, is still monumental: Recovery will be more successful if all facets of Maine, especially employers, openly support the effort. The scourge of addiction is already here, and recovery is an essential part of the solution. Moreover, many recoverees will need a stable job to get fully back on track, and we still need many more businesses to make this possible.

Employers and employees who are interested in becoming more recovery friendly are welcome to contact me at bhawkins@northeasternwdb.org for more information or to learn about upcoming workshops on recovery and employment.