Maine needs people once on the fringes of the workforce to fill the labor gap

Stephen Buckley, who installs solar panels for Synergy Solar, is the type of unconventional worker the state of Maine is targeting to fill its labor gap.

The 32-year-old moved to Maine five years ago from California, where he was involved in gangs from the age of 13. His drug addiction, including heroin, and the violence associated with it kept him in and out of prison for more than half of his time. life.

“I thought prison was my retirement plan,” he said. “Now I have a goal, I get up every day and I have a routine.”

Buckley received counseling at Eastern Maine Development Corp., a Bangor nonprofit that works with the state to help people develop job skills. It embodies a state strategy to target formerly incarcerated people, those recovering from substance use disorders, veterans, people with disabilities, retirees and others to help fill a labor gap. work of two open jobs for each job seeker.

The labor shortage is a national struggle, but it’s been exacerbated by Maine’s aging population, which is why workforce development experts are working to attract those who are not part of the usual labor pool.

“There is no one strategy,” said Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “We also work with the New Mainers and invest in young people.”

Fortman countered some beliefs that many people are sitting at home and using the pandemic and other benefits to prolong their unemployment.

She said 80% of people aged 25-54 are working, and more young people are entering the labor market at an earlier age. Work permit applications for under-16s reached a record 6,800 last year, up from 4,800 in 2019, and there were already nearly 6,200 last month.

The major problem for Maine, which has the highest median age in the country, is that only 20% of people over 65 are still working. Many baby boomers have retired in recent years in a trend that appears to be accelerating.

Maine’s unemployment rate in July fell to a 28-month low of 2.8% in July, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The state’s initial jobless claims also continued their decline for the week ending Sept. 3, down 24% from the previous week and 51% from a year ago. That’s a steep drop from when unemployment claims saw a COVID-19 pandemic peak of 30,889 for the week ending April 4, 2020.

Fortman said his staff were going to places where people might need help. Some people may not have had formal job interviews in a while. Others may struggle to answer questions about incarceration, she said.

Eastern Maine Development Corp. is a place that helps train and place workers, including recently incarcerated people like Buckley. It has 500 people enrolled in its programs statewide.

“Recently incarcerated individuals are a new area of ​​potential workers, as are recovering individuals and New Mainers,” said Lee Umphrey, CEO of Eastern Maine Development. “All three come with a lot of barriers that we’re trying to break down.”

The nonprofit spends a lot of time helping businesses get comfortable with people they don’t normally entertain. Once companies see that candidates — no matter what difficulties they’ve faced — are hard workers and part of the community — they often come around to hiring them, Umphrey said.

A collaboration between one of the state’s 12 CareerCenters and the Kennebec County Correctional Facility also aims to facilitate introductions. During a recent program, eight inmates met three potential employers in mock interviews. The meeting was a success, said Susan LeClair, CareerCenter manager for the region covering Augusta, Rockland and the northern Kennebec Valley.

“There were tentative job offers from one of the employers, telling people to please apply as soon as they were released,” she said, adding that job seekers had received constructive feedback during mock interviews.

This type of interaction is important for recently incarcerated people, some of whom have been out of the workforce for years. They often need to create a resume and references from scratch, said Brian Landry, who completed his 42-month sentence in April and is now employed.

Brian Landry, a certified drug and alcohol counselor at Milestone Recovery in Portland, initially struggled to find work due to his history of substance abuse and incarceration. He now helps people with similar difficulties to recover. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Landry

“Some people have never had a job or a bank account or credit,” said Landry, 39, who has had substance use disorder for half his life. “They never functioned like normal adults.”

Landry, who grew up in Medway, got a job after his release with the help of Eastern Maine Development, which paid minimum wage for his 12-week contract at Pir2Peer, a recovery center in Millinocket.

There, he was able to help others with substance use disorders as a recovery coach and pass his Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor exam. He is now a counselor at Milestone Recovery in Portland and wants those incarcerated to have more opportunities to hone their job skills in preparation for release.

“I overcame the person I was,” he said. “I’m proud of the person I’ve become and helping people.”

Michael A. Bynum