Do Maine’s foreign immigrants provide untapped economic potential?

Over the weekend, the Bangor Daily News published an article by freelancer Kirsten Sylvain that raises an important question: Does Maine’s immigrant community hold untapped economic potential?

The job of the MaineFocus project is to consider solutions for Maine’s economic challenges, and this article addressed a solution that to my knowledge hasn’t received much attention.

We often hear policy makers and business leaders discussing Maine’s demographic challenge: An aging workforce without enough young skilled workers to fully replenish the ranks. But what if one piece of the solution is staring us in the face and just needs to be utilized?

In the story, Alain Nahimana, immigrant rights and racial justice organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, says immigrants arrive in Maine and are never asked about what kind of skills they may have, or those skills might be best utilized. Instead, they’re funneled into low-skilled jobs like cleaning hotel rooms, he says.

“We need to start being strategic,” Nahimana told Sylvain. “Which kind of skills do we need [immigrants] to have, given the needs of the job market, the needs of the Maine economy?”

Now, as the article points out, the answer as to how much untapped potential might exist among the immigrant community is far from clear because not enough data exists. But from the data that does, it would seem the immigrant community has plenty of potential to contribute.

Consider educational attainment: 34 percent of Maine’s foreign-born population age 25 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2011, compared to 28.2 percent of native-born persons age 25 and older, according to the Immigration Policy Center. That’s impressive.

As for workforce, immigrants comprised 3.5 percent of the state’s workforce in 2011, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

There are groups working on helping Maine’s immigrants better assimilate into the state’s business community, such as the Maine Association for New Americans and Community Financial Literacy, which helps immigrants navigate the complex world of our financial system.

What else needs to happen to help tap into the potential these new residents bring to Maine will be the topic of a follow-up article by the Bangor Daily News.


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