Maine will need to employ an estimated 158,000 additional trained workers over the next five years in order to maintain economic growth, and organizations in the state are exploring a variety of strategies for making up the shortfall, according to a workforce development group.

At its annual education symposium in Portland on Friday, Educate Maine hosted a variety of discussions on ways to accelerate the growth of skilled workers in Maine. Topics included strategies to improve working conditions, recruitment efforts, community partnerships, learning environments, student motivation, and internship and apprenticeship programs.

One discussion centered on ways to better incorporate recent immigrants into the workforce. Leaders said there needs to be better coordination among state and local agencies, companies and educational institutions to get immigrants the training and certifications they need, including English language training.

“I think as a state, our response at this point has been very piecemeal, and that we really need to think about and look at this in a way of having a comprehensive response of trying to attract people not only from other countries, but from other parts of this country, that are going to become the next generation of our future workforce,” said panelist state Rep. Michael Brennan, a Democrat and former mayor of Portland.

More than 400 educators, nonprofit leaders, government officials and business leaders attended the symposium, which was completely sold out. Maine’s worker shortage has affected all industries and has become the most pressing concern of employers in the state, where unemployment has been below for 4 percent for nearly four years. The labor shortage has the potential to become even worse in the coming years as more members of the baby boomer generation retire and there are fewer young people in Maine to fill their jobs.

Educate Maine Executive Director Jason Judd said the theme of this year’s symposium was the MaineSpark coalition’s goal of ensuring at least 60 percent of Maine adults have some form of post-secondary educational credential or training certification by 2025. Currently, about 45 percent of Maine adults have such credentials.

“Our symposium was completely organized around that (60 percent) goal, and practices to be able to get to that goal, from early childhood to adulthood,” Judd said. “What can the next five years look like? What practices can we share with one another? What’s working and not working? How can we scale some of those programs and then invest in them so we can make sure to get to 60 percent?”

One discussion centered on adult education and connecting recent immigrants with programs and resources to train them in the needed skills for successful careers in the Maine workforce. That was the topic of a panel discussion led by Megan Diver, senior government relations specialist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and featuring panelists Matt Marks, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, former Barber Foods President Dave Barber and Brennan.

Marks said Maine’s worker shortage has hit the state’s construction industry particularly hard. He said the industry lost about 10,000 workers – one-third of its total workforce – during the Great Recession and has only recovered by about 5,000 workers since then.

“We’re in a bit of a workforce crisis here in the construction industry,” Marks said. “We really have a void that we need to fill here in Maine.”

Marks said his organization has developed a “Construction 101” training program designed to give new Mainers a broad overview of the industry and the various specialized jobs they could pursue with further training. The program, which will commence in January in Augusta, will include both classroom education and on-the-job learning, he said. There also will be opportunities for participants to meet with potential employers, he said.

Barber emphasized the need for more programs that teach English as a second language to recent immigrants. The son of first-generation Armenian immigrant Augustus “Gus” Barber, who founded Barber Foods, he said he understands the importance of learning English as a requirement to function in the workforce, and that Barber Foods has been conducting its own on-site English classes for immigrant workers for decades, benefiting greatly in the process.

“The thing that was really important was support from the top,” Barber said. “My father would go in and he would be part of those classes and he would teach, and he actually taught a couple of citizenship courses that were held on site.”

Brennan said there are a number of state and federal laws that make it more difficult for some new Mainers such as asylum seekers to enter the workforce. He said about half of asylum seekers are highly trained professionals who aren’t able to immediately apply their skills in Maine because of language barriers and restrictions on employment.

He said Maine has various workforce development programs aimed at helping immigrants and others assimilate into the workforce, but that they can be difficult for immigrants to find out about and access. Brennan said he backs legislation to create a state welcoming center for immigrants that would help them connect with workforce training.

Maine Community College System Executive Director of Workforce Training Dan Belyea, who attended the discussion, said the community college system is on the front lines of connecting immigrants with industry and getting new Mainers the skills they need for professional success. It offers a host of short-term, introductory programs in various occupations to help immigrants and and Maine natives alike prepare for careers in the state.

However, state funds allotted for short-term occupational training programs are in relatively short supply, Belyea said, despite the dire need for trained workers.

“We receive $1.5 million (annually) in workforce funds from the state, and we are very appreciative of that,” he said. “We trained 79 percent more in (fiscal year) 2019 than in (fiscal year) 2018. If we had access to more funds, we could train more Mainers, we could skill up more Mainers.”

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