November 1, 2013

Our View: Give Maine’s skilled immigrants chance to fill ‘skills gap’

Eliminating a $75,000 pilot transition program for foreign-trained professionals will cost Maine much more than it saves.

The shortage of Maine residents prepared for high-wage, highly skilled jobs is alarming, so it’s good news to learn that some of those people are already here: They’re the doctors and lawyers, engineers and teachers, who’ve come to Maine from other countries and are having trouble with the transition to practicing their profession in their new home.

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In 2010, researchers have found, 16 percent of the college-educated immigrants in Maine were either unemployed or held unskilled jobs, such as security guards or housemaids. Fully funding a pilot program to help skilled immigrants transition into the U.S. job market will advance Maine’s economy.

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A measure passed last session promised to make things easier. It funded a pilot project to help foreign-trained professionals integrate into the U.S. job market, offering services such as individualized career planning and networking assistance.

But the state’s government efficiency agency has recommended eliminating the Portland-based Welcome Center Initiative if private funds can’t be found to support the program. Lawmakers who sincerely want to grow Maine’s economy will resist this ill-advised proposal.

Many immigrants bring solid credentials to their new home country. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 34 percent of Maine’s foreign-born adults 25 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2011, compared to 28 percent of their native-born peers. But in 2010, the centrist think tank estimated, 16 percent of immigrants in Maine with at least a bachelor’s were either unemployed or held unskilled jobs, such as security guards or housemaids.

To address this “brain waste,” as the think tank calls it, last session’s omnibus workforce training bill included $75,000 to pay the coordinator (and sole employee) of a program to serve foreign-trained workers, focusing on professionals. Given the cost, it’s a bargain: Equipping a foreign-born engineer or lawyer to work in their field in Maine will pay dividends in tax revenues and an expanded middle class.

It’s not clear why this program has been swept up in a $35 million Le- Page administration budget-cutting effort, though the governor’s policies have worked to the disadvantage of immigrants before. (Witness the elimination of MaineCare for some 500 foreign-born legal residents in 2011.)

But what is obvious is that stinting on funds to prepare Maine residents for professional careers will save the state relatively little money but potentially cost the state much more.

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