Aroostook educators and businesses look to immigrants to address workforce shortages

8 months ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In northern Maine there are help wanted signs in the windows of businesses and online advertisements looking for prospective workers to address local workforce shortages.

Aroostook County had a 3.2 percent unemployment rate in August, only slightly higher than Maine’s rate of 2.5 percent and lower than the U.S. unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, according to data from Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

Educators and businesses from the Northern Maine Growth Initiative on Tuesday at Northern Maine Community College discussed The County’s workforce shortages and what resources the group can put together for immigrant communities who are interested in moving to the region.

“As we’ve looked at the last 50 years and seen movement of that population in the United States, we see that the population is on average getting older and older and older,” said Dave Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System.

Over the past two weeks, around 50 calls and 20 email requests were sent to Northern Maine Community College’s Workforce Development Office from immigrants in Portland expressing an interest to come up to explore workforce opportunities in northern Maine, said Victoire Liwanga, workforce development coordinator for New Mainers at NMCC.

Some of the immigrants have professional backgrounds, including medical doctors and nurses, accountants and IT professionals, and are looking to further their education by getting an associate degree to be able to enter the workforce in Maine, Liwanga said.

Northern Maine Community College is planning to hire an English as a second language instructor, who could be a faculty member or community member, to help New Mainers transition into the workforce and local community.

Aroostook County only has one certified ESL instructor and one more that has applied for emergency ESL certification, according to Melaine Junkins, family engagement and cultural responsibility specialist for the Maine Department of Education.

“If we don’t have individuals here to thrive, we can’t support their families either,” Junkins said.

It takes about two to three years for someone to be socially proficient in a new language, according to Junkins. She provides three hours of language instruction per week to 12 employees at J.D. Irving, so they can learn English while working.

NMCC is working with the University of Maine at Presque Isle and SAD 1 to find ways to address the language barrier for immigrants moving to a predominantly English speaking community.

J.D. Irving has been trying to recruit workers from other countries for around a year, according to Doug Cyr, human resource manager at J.D. Irving Forest Products and Irving Woodland. The company has workers from Mexico at its facility at Nashville Plantation, he said.

But immigrants make up a small percentage of J.D. Irving’s total workforce and aren’t enough to solve its workforce shortages at this time, Cyr said.