Maine looks to migrant surge to remedy worker shortage

Maine Gov. Janet Mills and a state lawmaker who immigrated from Somalia unveiled a proposal on Friday to try to resolve the state’s serious worker shortage by tapping swiftly growing immigrant communities.

Maine traditionally has had among the smallest immigrant populations in the country. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, only about 4% of the state’s residents were born outside the U.S.

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That has been gradually changing as tens of thousands of residents descended from Somalia and other African countries have made homes in Portland and Lewiston, two of the state’s biggest cities. Those arrivals helped push up the percentage of foreign-born residents by about a percentage point between 2000 to 2022, according to census figures.

Gov. Janet Mills speaks at her inauguration ceremony, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The Office of New Americans is proposed in a bill by state Rep. Deqa Dhalac, the first Somali immigrant to become mayor of a U.S. city in 2021, when she took office in South Portland. She was elected to the Maine Legislature last year. Dhalac and Mills say the bill would address shortages in critical industries including health care, education and construction.

“Improving how Maine introduces and integrates New Americans into its communities and economy is viewed as one key strategy to address the state’s workforce needs, as attracting and retaining new workers is a priority for Maine’s economic future,” they said in a news release.

Under Dhalac’s bill, among the new office’s primary activities would be providing pathways for immigrant employees to obtain professional accreditation and licenses. The office would also be responsible for “engaging with businesses to increase employment, retention and advancement of immigrant employees,” the proposal states.

The bill is due for a public hearing on Jan. 30.

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At least 18 other states have offices or staff focused on bringing immigrants into the workforce, including in New England, where officials are coping with housing shortages while trying to welcome growing numbers of immigrants fleeing their homelands for the Northeast.

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