As president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, Dana F. Connors serves as the voice for 5,000 businesses from across all sectors and regions. “Our emphasis is on those policies and legislative issues that will help grow our economy and improve the business climate with a focus on creating and providing jobs,” explains Connors. He says immigration reform is directly linked to Maine’s economic prosperity. “As one of the oldest states in the country, our economic growth depends upon our ability to attract and retain immigrants who bring with them a culture, work ethic, and education that will serve our population and workforce needs very, very well.”
There is no question that the foreign-born population is key to being able to grow Maine’s economy.
Between 1980 and 2010, Maine’s workforce grew from 500,000 to 700,000. The biggest expansion happened in the 1980s — a time when greater numbers of immigrants and women joined the professional ranks. In the early 2000s, however, the trend reversed: 20 percent of Mainers between the ages of 18 and 34 moved out of the state. Combined with high death and retirement rates, the state’s labor pool shrunk from 750,000 to 675,000.
To address the critical workforce shortage — among other things, young workers are needed to pay taxes and support state services — the chamber partnered with the Maine Development Foundation to analyze the state’s labor needs. “We wanted to make sure we were aligning our job opportunities with the skills that were being developed in higher education, while being mindful of our significant baby boomer population,” Connors explains. “Then, we set a goal of trying to add an additional 60,000 workers by 2025. You can grow some of that from within by working with military veterans, disengaged youth, the elderly, and by re-engaging native Mainers who migrated out. But it was clear that a significant portion of that number needed to come from the immigrant community. There is no question that the foreign-born population is key to being able to grow Maine’s economy.”
Connors says current immigration policy creates unnecessary barriers for foreign-born residents who are eager to contribute to the state and national economies. “There are times when the question of providing general assistance to someone who’s just come here and needs stability while they find something becomes a major issue, but that immediate help is pretty significant,” says Connors. “Anyone who comes to the United States had to leave a lot behind to get here, and if we don’t offer support through that adjustment period, that person becomes very disadvantaged.”
Ultimately, Connors would like to see conversations about immigration reform that don’t feed into stereotypes. Undocumented workers should be offered a path to work in the country legally and to secure the resources they need to retain steady employment, he says. He’d also like to see more community centers tasked with helping foreign-born residents integrate into their communities.
“By and large, Maine is a very white population,” says Connors. “For our state, it’s really about looking at our workforce issues and demographics and asking, ‘How do we turn it around?’ The immigrant community is a vital piece to that puzzle.”