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Facing labor shortage and shrinking population, Presque Isle looks to attract refugee families

A sawmill worker wearing a green shirt walks on a metal walkway over several large metal hoppers filled with logs.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
A worker surveys the log sorting machine at the Irving sawmill in Ashland. The mill is operating at about 20% below full capacity due to staffing shortages.

One morning at the Irving sawmill in Ashland late last month, hundreds of logs were moving through a mechanical sorting machine the size of a high school swimming pool, tumbling into enormous metal hoppers before being whisked away on a conveyor belt to be processed.

The mill produces around 500,000 board feet of lumber every day. It could increase that output to nearly 600,000 board feet, said human resource manager Doug Cyr, if not for staffing shortages.

"We're actually about 15 to 20 short, to run the entire operation at full capacity," Cyr said.

Cyr said that means production has to be cut back even more if someone calls in sick or can’t get to work because of a snowstorm.

"If we have any hiccups — we're so lean — that's where we'll end up having to shut a line down and focus on a different line," he said.

Ari Snider
Moving boards at the Irving sawmill in Ashland in late September.

It’s one example of a challenge facing employers across the region, according to Paul Towle, president and CEO of the Aroostook Partnership, an economic development group.

"We don't have enough qualified and skilled workers, we don't have enough workers to take the entry level positions that are open as well," he said.

He said part of that is due to population decline — a trend that long predates the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census, since 1960 the population of Aroostook County has shrunk by about 37%. One contributing factor, says Towle, happened in 1994, as a result of the military's base realignment and closure process.

"We've had a population decline over the last several years, really stemming back to when Loring Air Force Base first closed," Towle said. "We took a pretty big hit in Aroostook County."

The base closure reduced the population of Limestone from 10,000 to just 2,000, and affected the economy of the entire region.

Ari Snider
A sign outside the Presque Isle Rehab and Nursing Center advertises a sign-on bonus for nurses and nursing assistants. Aroostook County is facing a shortage of skilled and entry-level workers, according to Paul Towle with the Aroostook Partnership, an economic development group.

To address the shrinking workforce in the County, a group of business and education leaders is pursuing a plan to attract families to the area. And more specifically, refugee families.

"If we can do a better job at bringing people in, welcoming people, and being open to new cultures and new changes, then we think we can have a leg up and expand the workforce and expand the opportunity for growth in this community," said Tim Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College.

Crowley is spearheading an effort to reach out to refugee communities that have been resettled in other parts of the state and country, and invite them to move to Presque Isle.

Crowley said his pitch to them highlights educational and job training opportunities that are available in the region — at the community college, the adult education program, and at the University of Maine's Presque Isle campus.

He said the community college can also provide some family housing on campus, and recently purchased a bus to fill a gap in public transit.

But he said the first task is to educate the local communities about how to accommodate families coming from other countries and cultural backgrounds.

"Different types of food people need, different types of religions that come to your area, the difference in culture that will occur and embracing that, and informing people about it," Crowley said. "And give them a chance to talk about it."

Ari Snider
Tim Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College, is spearheading an effort to encourage refugee families to relocate to Presque Isle.

The college is currently hiring for a position that would coordinate the program, and Crowley said he hopes to welcome the first families by next fall.

The challenge, though, will be to find those families. One group that Crowley has already reached out to is the Afghan Community of Maine, which is concentrated in the Portland area.

Community president Abdul Qani said no one he’s spoken with is interested in moving to northern Maine.

"It's a great idea, but the problem is the Afghan community is a very close community," Qani said.

Being a close-knit community, Qani said, means that people are reluctant to move so far away from family and friends.

"And I can understand," he said. "If I were in their shoes, I wouldn't be interested to commit myself to that journey from here to there."

Qani said another challenge is that northern Maine lacks key institutions on which the Afghan community relies, such as mosques and halal food stores.

And getting people to move to northern Maine is one thing. Giving them a reason to stay is another.

Just up the road from Presque Isle, in Caribou, one immigrant family has found reasons to stay, including good jobs and strong friendships.

"Everywhere we've lived in we've been blessed with wonderful neighbors. Yeah, it's the people. For me, it's the people," said Omotoyosi Gabriel.

Ari Snider
Omotoyosi Gabriel, left, and her husband ID outside their home in Caribou. The Gabriels, originally from Nigeria, have been living in Aroostook County since 2016, and say they appreciate the slower pace of life and the strong relationships they've forged with their neighbors.

Gabriel is originally from Nigeria, and works as a registered nurse at the hospital in Presque Isle. She moved to Caribou in 2016 with her husband, when he got a job at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, an agency within the Department of Defense that has an office in Limestone.

The couple have a five-year-old girl and a nine-month-old boy. And they said for the most part Caribou has been a good place to raise them. But Gabriel said she does worry that her daughter will struggle with being the only Black student in her class.

"Because she was like, ‘Oh Mommy, I'm different.’ She's just five, and she knows she's different," Gabriel said.

Gabriel said that during their six years in Caribou, she and her husband have made friends with a few other African families from Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and other countries.

But she said many of them ended up moving away, in part to give their kids exposure to more diverse communities.

Ari Snider
Boards moving along a conveyor system at the Irving sawmill in Ashland. Amid staffing shortages, the company is recruiting workers from as far away as Texas and Louisiana.

Despite current staffing challenges at the Irving sawmill, HR manager Doug Cyr said he's hopeful that the workforce can be expanded to operate at full capacity before the end of the year.

He said part of that effort involves recruiting workers from as far away as Texas and Louisiana. But they're also doing outreach closer to home. On this day, Cyr said he had a meeting with a Lewiston-based organization that's active in the Somali community.

A green loader truck carries a bundle of logs as it drives past a massive pile of logs.
Ari Snider
A truck carries logs at the Irving sawmill in Ashland.