February 28

Portland sees new hotels and immigrants working together

Employers and city officials talk about job prospects in the bustling local hospitality industry.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Portland’s hotel boom could bring as many as 300 jobs to the peninsula in the next year, and city officials hope many of those jobs will go to refugees and recent immigrants.

click image to enlarge

Mohamud Barre, executive director of Maine Access Immigrant Network, asks questions Thursday as representatives of the hotel industry and refugee assistance groups and city officials meet at the Portland Public Library to discuss ways to improve job opportunities for immigrants in Portland’s growing hospitality sector.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association said more management jobs will open for local workers as new hotels get established.

On Thursday morning, city employment officials met with representatives of some of those hotels and suggested a partnership that they hope will steer many of the jobs to “new Mainers.”

City representatives said the immigrant community has much to offer hotels and other employers, including the fact that the average age of Maine residents born outside the U.S. is about 27, well below Maine’s median age of 43.5, and many have college degrees.

But they acknowledged that there are barriers to hiring immigrants, chiefly language and cultural.

“It can be a challenge with a diverse workforce,” said Rebecca Urbanik, housekeeping manager of the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, but she said having employees from 10 countries is a net plus.

To find immigrant and refugee workers, Urbanik said, she works with Portland Adult Education, which helps overcome potential barriers and prepares the immigrants for American workplaces.

Many other employers said they hope to tap into the immigrant community for employees.

Jim Brady, who is developing the Press Hotel in the former Portland Press Herald building on Congress Street, said diversity was a key issue when he went looking for a company to run his hotel, which is expected to open April 1, 2015.

Brady said he stayed in some hotels run by the management company Trust Hospitality, based in Florida, to see for himself if the workforce was diverse and well-treated, and he agreed to hire the company only after he was assured that was the case.

Brady said the hospitality industry is generally multicultural but could always use more diversity, particularly in Maine, which has one of the smallest minority populations in the country.

And, with most hotels offering restaurants, bars and business meeting facilities, “there’s a pretty wide set of skills needed,” he said.

Edmund Sulzman, vice president of operations for Trust Hospitality, said his company has found that an employee’s winning attitude can overcome factors such as limited English skills.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a great skill set” the company is seeking, Sulzman said. “It’s the great personality, we’ve found.”

One participant at Thursday’s session said he’s worried that the industry may pigeonhole many immigrants as suited only for relatively low-skill and low-wage jobs, such as housekeeping.

Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Community Financial Literacy in Portland, said many immigrants are well-educated and highly skilled, and he’s concerned that hotels that take part in the partnership with the city might expect to fill primarily the more numerous menial jobs.

“You have a law degree and they’re giving you a housekeeping job,” Rwaganje said, adding that he hopes hotel operators will look to the immigrant community to fill management jobs, as well.

Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, said he believes that most hotel jobs will be filled by local workers, but initially the top jobs will go to managers from other hotels in the group who have experience opening new locations.

Generally, hotel companies have their own people for those key jobs, but other management slots are filled by local applicants, Dugal said.

More high-level jobs will open for local workers as the hotels get established and their initial top executives move to other new hotels, he said.

That’s why a new degree program in hospitality and tourism at the University of Southern Maine is important, Dugal said.

The program, now in its second year, will offer a bachelor’s degree, Dugal said, adding that it is important for the local industry to support the program by hiring members of the first graduating class in two years.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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