Portland to expand program helping non-citizen welfare recipients find employment

The Pihcintu Girls Chorus performs at Portland Mayor Ethan Striplings inaugural celebration in December at the Ocean Gateway Terminal.

The Pihcintu Girls Chorus performs at Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling’s inaugural celebration in December at the Ocean Gateway Terminal.

Over the weekend, we published a pair of stories about a forthcoming report by Coastal Enterprises Inc., which dug into the hurdles still preventing many new immigrants to Maine from reaching their potential in the local workforce.

Among those lingering barriers are trouble with the English language, a lack of a U.S. work history or difficulty transferring degrees and credentials from foreign institutions.

On Tuesday, Portland city officials will unveil the early results of a new program aimed at breaking down those barriers for non-citizen General Assistance recipients, and open up about plans to expand that program to help citizen GA recipients as well.

“It’s in all of our best interests to create a pathway to success for our citizens who currently require assistance,” said City Manager Jon Jennings in a statement. “We began this program focused on our non-citizen population as they face greater barriers to employment, but I’m pleased to announce that our staff has had such a great response in enrolling participants that we’ll be expanding it for all recipients later this month.”

[MORE: Portland’s population would have dropped since 2000 without immigrants]

The so-called HIRE program — which stands for Helping Individuals Regain Employment — was launched in January and devotes a dedicated employment specialist to the cases of non-citizen GA recipients who were struggling to obtain work in their new home country.

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee, city staff will explain how it’s worked out so far and discuss plans to add a second employment specialist who will take on a caseload of citizen GA recipients.

The program’s expansion comes against a backdrop of a looming workforce shortage, where Portland’s sub-3 percent unemployment rate leaves few available workers to fill an increasing number of jobs in the market (CEI reported that the Portland area added around 3,900 new jobs between 2014 and 2015, for instance).

[MORE: Immigrants are needed to fill Maine’s workforce gap. Here’s what’s getting in the way]

So the city’s HIRE program seeks to take more people who currently are receiving welfare benefits and move them over to the “gainfully employed” category, helping the client and employer alike.

This is through resume counseling and proactive networking with agencies that can help with English language proficiency and job placement, among other things.

This type of program provides a hint of what a municipal-level Office of New Americans might be tasked with once it’s implemented. Mayor Ethan Strimling and the City Council are pursuing the creation of such an office, as previously reported.

So how is this HIRE program working out?

Since it was launched in January, they’ve seen 54 non-citizen GA recipients participate. Of those, 21 have by now obtained either full- or part-time work, and five have been found to qualify for state-funded disability benefits.

Those numbers will undoubtedly grow in the coming weeks as individuals who entered the program more recently start coming out the other end.

“We are talking about a population that is overwhelmingly educated and motivated to work,” said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the council’s Health & Human Services Committee, in a statement. “This program will help them achieve their goals faster so they can make a better life for themselves and their families.”

[MORE: Portland to go it alone providing General Assistance for asylum seekers]

The city has recognized five employers who have found workers from the HIRE applicant pool — Granite Bay Care, Bayside Nursing Home, Express Transportation, HW Staffing and Avesta Housing — and is seeking more businesses who want to plug into the pipeline.

The city is working on a recognition program for those employers who do, and the plan is currently to add that second employment specialist within the next two weeks.

City officials are urging business managers who want to learn more to call Aaron Geyer at 482-5131.

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic talks to reporters outside the Oxford Street Shelter during a recent new conference. (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic talks to reporters outside the Oxford Street Shelter during a new conference last year. (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)


Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.