With unemployment at historic lows in Maine, employers are struggling to find enough workers. Credit: Kathleen Pierce

It feels strange to say that Maine has an employment “crisis” at a time when unemployment is at its lowest rate in decades. Yet, Maine’s low unemployment rates mean that employers are struggling to find workers, particularly in professions that require specialized education and skills.

The good news is that one solution to this issue involves fully utilizing the skills of workers who are already here in Maine. And there is legislation, LD 1492, in the Maine Legislature that would begin to address this problem right now.

Employers throughout Maine likely know and understand this story. They want to hire workers, but there is a mismatch between the skills within their local labor pool and those that they are seeking. Acute needs exist in critically important fields like health care, construction and engineering. Last year, a legislative task force acknowledged that the shortage in skilled labor had reached crisis proportions.

The immigration debate often centers on unskilled workers coming to the United States illegally. But many individuals coming here through legal means possess significant skills and education that could fill critical gaps in our labor force.

The Pew Research Center reports that 41 percent of recent immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. have at least a bachelor’s degree. And an even higher proportion have valuable prior work experience. Yet, the Migration Policy Institute reports that as many as 20 percent of those with college education and useful professional skills are unemployed or working in low-skill positions that fail to utilize that experience.

Those who have recently arrived in the U.S. may encounter a host of frustrating obstacles. For many, language is a barrier. They often speak some English but are not quite at the level of proficiency needed for professional success. Or they may have difficulty getting proper licensure or credentials to use their skills here. In addition, the absence of U.S.-based work experience can result in these individuals having to work in entry-level positions when they are qualified to do much more.

These are not insurmountable obstacles. Often, a newly arriving individual just needs a bit of assistance topping off their language skills. Or they need a helping hand navigating the tangles of bureaucracy or a confusing, alien professional landscape. Taking a proactive approach to addressing these challenges would benefit our state’s economy by unlocking the talent and experience that already exist in our state.

The bipartisan LD 1492 seeks to address this squandered capacity in a number of respects. It would create an “Office of New Mainers” within the state executive branch, with a director who would answer to the governor. The goal of this office is to help facilitate the transition of recently arrived Mainers into our communities and into our labor force.

The legislation would also help to fund and support “welcome centers” in areas with significant populations of new Mainers, or in areas where local employers have substantial unmet need for skilled employment. The centers would facilitate access to English language training, career-planning assistance and investment in workforce training.

The bill has broad bipartisan support in the Legislature, but has landed on the “special appropriations table,” a place where “good bills go to die.” Basically, the Legislature needs to find $390,000 in the 2018-2019 fiscal year to invest in these important initiatives before the close of this legislative session. Subsequent years would require additional appropriation, but spending would decline after initial investment and expansion of existing services.

It’s true that there are always more good ideas than we can hope to fund, and that the term “crisis” tends to be overused in politics. But if the Legislature fails to tackle Maine’s shortage of skilled workers, this would have truly disastrous implications for our state’s economy.

LD 1492 is a sound investment in our future viability as a state, and it is a common sense way to take advantage of the significant skills and experience that already reside within our borders. We can no longer afford to waste the untapped human potential of our capable and skilled new Mainers.

Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors and Cleo Barker is an undergraduate honors student in international affairs at the University of Maine in Orono. This column reflects their views and expertise, and does not speak on behalf of the university. Glover 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.

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