Faced with labor shortages and a shrinking population, Près Isle seeks to attract refugee families

One morning at the Irving sawmill in Ashland late last month, hundreds of logs passed through a mechanical sorting machine the size of a high school swimming pool, falling into huge metal hoppers before being swept onto a treadmill to be processed.

The mill produces approximately 500,000 board feet of lumber each day. That could boost that production to nearly 600,000 board feet, human resources manager Doug Cyr said, if not for staffing shortages.

“We’re actually 15 to 20 people short of running the whole operation at full capacity,” Cyr said.

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

“If we have a hiccup – we’re so skinny – that’s when we’ll end up having to close one line and focus on another line,” he said.

Moving boards to the Irving sawmill in Ashland at the end of September.

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

“We don’t have enough skilled, skilled workers, we don’t have enough workers to fill the entry-level positions that are also open,” he said.

He said part of that was due to population decline – a trend that long predates the pandemic. According to the US Census, since 1960 the population of Aroostook County has declined by approximately 37%. A contributing factor, Towle says, occurred in 1994, following the process of realigning and closing the military base.

“We’ve had a decline in population over the past few years, which actually dates back to the first closure of Loring Air Force Base,” Towle said. “We took a pretty big hit in Aroostook County.”

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

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A sign outside the Almost Isle Rehabilitation and Nursing Center advertises a sign-up bonus for nurses and nursing assistants. Aroostook County faces a shortage of skilled and entry-level workers, according to Paul Towle of the Aroostook Partnership, an economic development group.

To deal with the county’s dwindling workforce, a group of business and education leaders pursue a plan to attract families to the area. And more specifically, refugee families.

“If we can do a better job of attracting people, welcoming them, and being open to new cultures and new changes, then we think we can get a head start and expand the workforce and expand the opportunities. growth in this community,” said Tim Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College.

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

Crowley said his presentation highlighted the education and job training opportunities available in the area — at the community college, the adult education program, and thePresque Isle campus of the University of Maine.

He said the community college can also provide married quarters on campus and recently purchased a bus to fill a gap in public transit.

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

“Different types of food that people need, different types of religions that come into your area, the difference in culture that will happen and embrace it, and let people know about it,” Crowley said. “And give them a chance to talk about it.”

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Tim Crowley, president of Northern Maine Community College, is spearheading an effort to encourage refugee families to move to Près Isle.

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

The challenge, however, will be to find these families. One group Crowley has already contacted is the Afghan community in Maine, which is concentrated in the Portland area.

Community president Abdul Qani said no one he spoke with was interested in moving to northern Maine.

“It’s a great idea, but the problem is that the Afghan community is a very close community,” Qani said.

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

“And I can understand,” he said. “If I were them, I wouldn’t be interested in embarking on this journey from here to there.”

Qani said another challenge is that northern Maine lacks key institutions the Afghan community relies on, 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 Près Isle in Caribou, an immigrant family has found reasons to stay, including good jobs and strong friendships.

“Wherever we’ve lived, we’ve been blessed with wonderful neighbors. Yeah, it’s the people. For me, it’s the people,” Omotoyosi Gabriel said.

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Omotoyosi Gabriel, left, and her husband identify themselves outside their home in Caribou. The Gabriels, originally from Nigeria, have lived in Aroostook County since 2016 and say they enjoy the slower pace of life and the strong relationships they have forged with their neighbors.

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

The couple have a five-year-old daughter and a nine-month-old son. And they said, for the most part, Caribou was a good place to raise them. But Gabriel said she was worried her daughter would struggle to be the only black student in her class.

“Because she was like, ‘Oh mom, I’m different.’ She’s only five years old and she knows she’s different,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said that during their six years at Caribou, she and her husband 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 children exposure to more diverse communities.

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

Despite current staffing challenges at the Irving sawmill, human resources manager Doug Cyr said he hopes the workforce can be expanded to operate at full capacity before the end of the year. .

He said part of that effort was recruiting workers from as far away as Texas and Louisiana. But they also raise awareness closer to home. That day, Cyr said he had a meeting with a Lewiston-based organization that is active in the Somali community.

A green loader truck carries a bundle of logs as it drives past a huge pile of logs.
A truck transports logs to the Irving sawmill in Ashland.