Maine's Immigrants Boost Workforce Of Whitest, Oldest State In U.S.

Apr 20, 2017
Originally published on April 21, 2017 6:26 am

A demographic crisis looms over Maine, the oldest and whitest state in the U.S. with one of the country's lowest birth rates.

Employers are already feeling the effects on Maine's workforce as they struggle to fill positions with "old Mainers" — long-time residents in a state where many take pride in their deep family roots, especially along the shores of Washington County.

Here in the rugged, eastern edges of the U.S., dotted with evergreens and wood-shingled houses, many make a living from the waters of Down East Maine, including Annie Sokoloski, an office manager in Steuben, Maine, for Lobster Trap, a wholesale lobster dealer. Working in seafood goes back generations in her family.

"My grandmother forced me to go into the fish factory and pack sardines," says Sokoloski, who recalls working as a sardine packer while on break from school. "She told me anytime that I thought about not having an education I needed to remember that day."

These days, Sokoloski says she still remembers other lessons: "You need to get away from here to make anything for yourself" she remembers her grandparents telling her when she was growing up.

"I think to a certain degree I do it with my own daughter," she says.

Her 23-year-old daughter, Natasha Davis, was also raised in Washington County. She wants to be a veterinary technician and has California in her sights.

"There seems to be more job opportunity out of Maine," Davis says.

It's young people like her that have been leaving Maine in droves since the 1980s. Local officials say they're worried about harder times ahead for Washington County, which faces the highest rate of unemployment of any county in Maine at 7 percent, according to the state's Department of Labor.

"The situation is worse than it appears. We have a lot people who are at their prime earning years, in their 50s and early 60s, and they're beginning to retire," says Charles Rudelitch, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, named after Washington County's nickname.

He says he's worried about who will be around to replace those retiring workers.

Nationally, the U.S. workforce is facing similar challenges with the decline of the baby boomer generation, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. It projects that new immigrants will be the main drivers of growth in the U.S. workforce through 2035.

Large communities of mainly Somali and Sudanese refugees have formed in Maine's largest cities, Portland and Lewiston. Rudelitch says Washington County also needs more immigrants and other newcomers to help sustain the local economy.

"We're making the argument that over time, there will be a much bigger economy for all of us to have a share of if we welcome people who choose to move here," he says.

Newcomers have been moving to the county, specifically to the small town of Milbridge, with a population of just over 1,300, according to the 2010 Census.

While Latinos make up just over 1 percent of Maine's residents, about 6 percent of Milbridge's residents are Latino, many of them families drawn by jobs in lobster processing, blueberry picking and wreath making.

Maria Paniagua Albor works in the office of a lobster processing plant, where she says most of the workers are Hispanic, either from Puerto Rico or Mexico. The white workers, she says, she can count on one hand.

Her father was one of the first workers from Mexico who put their roots down in Milbridge. She says he worked seasonal jobs in the area for years before he decided to move his family after they received their green cards.

Now a U.S. citizen, Paniagua Albor lives in her own mobile home in Milbridge with her husband and two-year-old son. She often volunteers with a local immigrant advocacy organization, Mano en Mano. Maine, she says, is just like what the welcome signs say along the highways here: "The Way Life Should Be."

"I don't want to be stuck in traffic like in New York," she says. "It's calm, and that's good to raise kids."

Victor Flores is raising four children in Milbridge with his fiancée. They met when they were working at the same seafood plant. She was the bookkeeper, while he processed sea cucumbers. Flores' fiancée is white and has lived in the area for almost 30 years. He was born in Mexico and moved here from Florida almost two decades ago.

Flores says he's felt some of the backlash against newcomers in town, including once outside the local supermarket when he parked next to a white man's car.

"He thought I was too close to him, so he started getting mad. And the first thing, he's like, 'Go back to Mexico! Go back to where you came from! You don't belong here!' " Flores recalls.

About a decade ago, tensions over new immigrants settling in Milbridge spilled over. There was a legal battle over building a small apartment complex for local farmworkers, most of whom are Hispanic, after voters approved a moratorium on multi-family units. The apartments were eventually built.

Sokoloski, the office manager from Lobster Trap, sees newcomers to Milbridge as a welcome addition, especially at job fairs and other recruiting events. Still, she says she is concerned about the future of Down East Maine's economy.

"It's disheartening," she says. "It's going to be more of a retirement-type area. There's nothing to really sustain a long-term growth of a younger generation."

She's not sure how long she'll live here year-round once her daughter leaves. After retirement, Sokoloski says, she'll probably move away.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Maine is the whitest and oldest state in the U.S. It also has one of the country's lowest birthrates. Demographers say that adds up to a looming crisis for Maine. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has this story about one Maine community that is relying on newcomers to keep its economy alive.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Here in the eastern edges of the U.S. along the shores of Washington County, many make a living from the waters of Down East Maine.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Crew members of Lobster Trap dump a vat of salted herring on a dock of a glassy bay ringed by evergreens and a scattering of wood-shingled houses. They're filling pungent containers of lobster bait. Annie Sokoloski helps manage this facility, and she says working in seafood goes back generations in her family.

ANNIE SOKOLOSKI: My grandmother forced me to go into the fish factory and pack sardines. And she told me, anytime that I thought about not having an education, I needed to remember that day.

WANG: And she says she still remembers other lessons from growing up in rural Down East Maine.

SOKOLOSKI: They instilled into our generation you need to get away from here to make anything for yourself, you know, and I think to a certain degree I do it with my own daughter.

WANG: Sokoloski's 23-year-old daughter, Natasha Davis, was also raised in Washington County.

NATASHA DAVIS: There seems to be more job opportunity out of Maine.

WANG: You'd have to leave for that.

DAVIS: Yes, travel, go somewhere different.

WANG: Davis wants to be a veterinary technician and has California in her sights. It's young people like her that have been leaving Maine in droves since the 1980s. And local officials say they're worried about harder times ahead for Washington County, including Charles Rudelitch of the Sunrise County Economic Council. A recent Pew Research Center report projects that new immigrants will be the main drivers of growth in the U.S. workforce through 2035. Rudelitch says immigrants will also be key in sustaining Washington County's economy.

CHARLES RUDELITCH: We are making the argument that over time there will be a much bigger economy for all of us to have a share of if we welcome people who choose to move here.

WANG: Newcomers have been moving to the county, specifically to the small town of Milbridge, population just over 1,300. About 6 percent is Latino, many of them families drawn by jobs in lobster processing, blueberry picking and wreath making. Maria Paniagua Albor works in the office of a lobster processing plant.

MARIA PANIAGUA ALBOR: Most of us are either from Puerto Rico or Mexico.

WANG: Her father was one of the first workers from Mexico who puts their roots down in Milbridge. She says he worked seasonal jobs in the area for years before he decided to move his family after they received their green cards. Paniagua Albor is a U.S. citizen now. She lives in her own mobile home in Milbridge with her husband and 2-year-old son. Maine, she says, is just like what the welcome signs say along the highways here - the way life should be.

ALBOR: It really is. I mean, I don't want to be stuck in traffic like in New York (laughter). So I guess I like it. It's calm, and that's good to raise kids.

MANNY FLORES: I'm going to be the dragon.

VICTOR FLORES: Where's the other dragon? There's the other dragon in here.

WANG: Victor Flores is raising his 5-year-old son, Manny, and three daughters in Milbridge with his fiance. They met when he was working at a sea cucumber processing plant.

FLORES: At that place, she was the bookkeeper. That's how I met her.

WANG: Flores' fiance is white and has lived in the area for almost three decades. He was born in Mexico and moved here from Florida almost two decades ago. Flores says he's felt some of the backlash against newcomers in town, including once outside the local supermarket when he parked next to a white man's car.

FLORES: He thought I was too close to him, so he started getting mad. And the first thing he's like, go back to Mexico. Go back to where you came from. You don't belong here.

WANG: But at that point, you had been living here for more than a decade.

FLORES: Yes.

WANG: For Annie Sokoloski of Lobster Trap, though, newcomers have been a welcome addition to her town, especially at job fairs and other recruiting events.

SOKOLOSKI: We start at $11 an hour with a weekly bonus.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you work Sundays?

SOKOLOSKI: Seven days a week.

WANG: Still, Sokoloski says she's concerned about the future of Down East, Maine's, economy.

SOKOLOSKI: It's going to be more of a retirement-type area. There's nothing to really sustain a long-term growth of a younger generation.

WANG: And she's not sure how long she'll live here year-round once her daughter leaves. After retirement, Sokolowski says, she'll probably move away. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Milbridge, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "APOLLO'S MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.