Alphonse Mpunga Katshipi Wa Tshiswaka (center), from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was one of 24 people to take the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony in Bangor on March 3. Northern Maine is hoping to recruit immigrants and asylum seekers, who are faced with a dire housing shortage in southern Maine, to help with staff shortages in Aroostook County. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

An Aroostook County group is ready to recruit immigrants from refugee communities to augment the sparse local workforce.

The Northern Maine Growth Initiative and its newly hired recruiter want to draw workers north from southern Maine. Meeting in Presque Isle Tuesday, initiative members talked about how best to integrate immigrants and asylum seekers into the job market and community.

Like many places in Maine, Aroostook County can’t find enough local workers. Spurred on by fears of losing businesses, the initiative proposed last year that bringing in refugees and immigrants — “new Mainers” — to the area could be one answer to keeping local industry alive.

“It’s come from a conversation about we need more people and how do we get them here,” said Timothy Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College and a member of the group.

The initiative started in 2018 when leaders from business, education, social services and faith-based groups formed an idea to attract more families and fulfill employer needs. Last year business leaders warned that if more workers didn’t move in, new businesses wouldn’t want to come north and The County could even lose existing industries.

The Presque Isle City Council in September approved an $80,000 Community Development Block Grant application, in partnership with Northern Maine Community College, to help fund the new workforce program.  

Though the initiative has not yet brought workers to The County, Victoire Liwanga of Congo and now living in Portland, was hired in May as the northern Maine workforce development coordinator. She will recruit immigrants and asylum seekers to settle and work in The County, helping to provide housing, education and social opportunities. 

Most new Mainers are immigrants or asylum seekers looking for better lives for their families in safer communities, Liwanga said.   

Documented immigrants and seekers of asylum are eligible for work in the United States and need to file for work authorization, according to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service

Some immigrants who have been in Maine for two to three years have their work authorization and are eligible to go to college depending on how well they speak English according to a Test of English as a Foreign Language score, according to Liwanga.

Though new workers can find jobs in the area, they will face challenges, such as getting used to a different climate and integrating into a new culture. Predominantly white communities make up 94.5 percent of Aroostook County, according to census data.

Another problem is finding them places to live, particularly in areas like Presque Isle which has a shortage of housing to begin with. Northern Maine Community College is willing to offer some dormitory units to workers, and the city is beefing up its affordable housing with an upcoming development on Elm Street.

Social connections will also make new residents feel at home, speakers said. One suggestion was establishing a cultural center in the city and also starting a support group to give new workers and their families a sense of belonging within Aroostook County.

Some migrant communities have various dietary needs which should be considered, said Galen Weibley, director of economic and community development for Presque Isle.

He also suggested that employers should educate the public about what workforce shortages and challenges they have been facing before people come to the community.

Some people might also have disability and mobility issues and those must be addressed, said Jacqui Lowman, professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. 

“We want to be open when we talk about people’s ability,” Lowman said. “You can be in a wheelchair and become a college professor.”

The Northern Maine Growth Initiative will next consider how to educate the local community about why it’s important to address the workforce needs. 

The initiative will also launch a website to acquaint potential workers with the area.

BDN writer Paula Brewer contributed to this report.