Global Talent Bridge Partner Blog

News on practice and policy affecting internationally trained immigrants and refugees

Spotlight: Portland, Maine – Reducing Licensing Barriers for Skilled Immigrants

Thursday November 21, 2019 | by Julia Trujillo

Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash


The WES Global Talent Bridge Skilled Immigrant Integration Program (SIIP), now wrapping up its second year and planning for its third, involves training and support for communities working to advance immigrant success. Making meaningful connections with multi-sector networks around the country is one of the drivers of the program. This piece by Julia Trujillo explores the work going on in Portland, Maine.

Maine is the oldest and whitest state in the U.S. with one of the country’s lowest birth rates. Like the rest of Maine, Portland is presented with an urgent challenge: slow population growth, an aging workforce and a tight labor market with skilled labor shortages. Therefore, we face a socio-economic imperative: to attract and retain even more talent to Portland.

Maine has been home to immigrants for centuries. The Irish, Italians, Swedes and Franco-phones are all part of Maine’s unique story. Cities are innovation engines, even in – or more so – in rural states like Maine. Portland is no exception: once a central manufacturing, trade and shipping hub; Portland has attracted significant diverse talent for centuries.

According to 2010 data, Portland accounts for a 15 percent foreign-born population. But like the city and the region, this share is growing at a rapid pace. How is the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in the City of Portland Maine supporting this change?

Reducing licensing barriers for skilled immigrants has taken a multi-faceted approach. OEO, with support from WES, has provided the state with resources for engaging the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation, and the individual state boards of professional licensing. Alongside our Greater Portland Workforce Initiative partners, we have created awareness about the challenges. Mike Zimmer from WES provided direct technical assistance alongside OEO to convene relevant licensing bodies to paint a pathway forward. These efforts will bring greater standardization across licensing boards, greater accessibility so that foreign-trained professionals can access industry sector-specific licensing requirements much more easily, and raise awareness across licensing boards of unique barriers faced by this population.

Beyond work with state officials, OEO is supporting local service providers to evaluate credentials, support associated costs, and so on. As of today, service providers throughout the city underestimated the resources available and the credential evaluation process. Through our collective impact model, we are working to expand credential evaluation services.

Looking ahead, OEO is thrilled to announce our upcoming employer summit to help companies in our area to better understand and recognize foreign credentials.

Our greatest success so far is helping the State of Maine form a legislative inclusive working group that can address the barriers unique to this population. The group represents Maine’s legislature, a variety of licensing boards, the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, and several key stakeholders, such as the Office of Economic Opportunity and the New Mainers’ Resource Center. In addition to work with government partners, we have also engaged with the private sector.

Through these approaches, we are working to address the brain waste that exists in our largest employer, Maine Medical Center. Many immigrants are hired to work in environmental or food services. This puts them in an environment where they cannot practice English. OEO has pushed Maine Medical Center to perform an internal audit. As a result, foreign-trained professionals are beginning to advance and explore career opportunities closer to their professional degrees from their home countries. Pathways for nursing, community health workers, phlebotomists, and other professions, have things slowly moving in the right direction.

This work cannot be done alone.

As a city, we face the challenges in workforce development, but [licensing issues] need to be solved at the state level. Collaboration has been key to our success and defining our role to support the state in whatever capacity to model a solution-driven partnership.

Julia Trujillo is director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for the City of Portland.

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