We haven’t seen anything like it before.

The jobs reports and unemployment numbers of the past 2½ years have repeatedly surprised the American public and confounded even the most imaginative labor economists. The scale of the original contraction rivaled the Great Depression. Its characteristics, however, have been unique.

A crop of tongue-in-cheek terms have sprung up to help us make sense of what’s been going on. “Shecession,” used even by the International Monetary Fund, refers to the flood of women, in particular, who departed the workforce and may not come back. “The Great Resignation” has become shorthand for the tens of millions of Americans who quit their jobs in 2021. Those who haven’t quit but say they’ve taken their foot off the pedal, empowered by a tight labor market to do the minimum in their line of work, are “quiet quitters.”

On Sunday the Portland Press Herald published the first installment of a deeply reported five-part series on the extent of the workforce crisis here in Maine. It’s called “Not Working.”

Thousands of workers have exited the state’s labor force since the start of the pandemic, most of them opting for early retirement. Other openings have been created by a switch by workers in different directions. The Press Herald stories feature the early retirees; the people who’ve decided to quit; those who’ve decided to switch, and the employers who’ve been unable to hire the staff they need.

Reporter Peter McGuire told of a recent job fair at the Portland Career Center. Folding table to folding table, the likelihood of hiring is felt to be vanishingly slim. The jobs are abundant; the jobseekers just aren’t there.

Of the many experiences McGuire reported on, few stand out more than that of Ayodele Okorie, one of the rare people to attend the job fair, one of the rare people to be seeking out a job that day. Okorie, who recently moved from Nigeria to Maine, was told that — despite decades of experience in medical laboratories — his qualifications were ineligible.

These hurdles are traditionally at their highest and most time-consuming in fields like law, engineering and the sciences, but a rote requirement for American education or training can be found across the board.

In July, Maine’s stagnating labor force participation rate — the rate of people in a job or looking for a job — was the eighth-lowest in the U.S., at 59%. Many thousands more of Maine’s workers will retire in the coming years, and young Mainers aren’t going to be able to fill the space they’ll leave behind. The oldest state in the nation is going to need all the help it can get.

Changes and updates to the recognition of credentials, licensing and other qualifications, publicly and privately, can help us ensure that the increasingly valuable experience and knowledge of immigrant workers won’t go to waste. Early moves by Maine to waive documentation requirements under certain circumstances have been promising.

Sweeping changes in approach have taken place elsewhere. Canada, which has similar demographic challenges, brought in a new policy almost 10 years ago. It settled on 24 occupations for “priority” assessment of existing credentials. Many of those occupations are as systems-heavy in nature as you’d expect, but the lists also includes midwives, carpenters, electricians, welders, heavy-duty equipment operators, audiologists and psychologists.

Inspiration can be drawn from an initiative in another part of the world well known for the high average age of its population: Japan, which in 2019 created a new residency status for workers in 14 named sectors, encouraged to come and join the workforce without delay.

From drawn-out waiting times for green cards to stagnant policies governing who can do what work and when, our approach to immigrant workers, who’ve long made the U.S. more dynamic and given it an edge, is woefully unfit for these trying times.

Support for increasing immigration is at an all-time high. If we’re to give our labor market a fighting chance, support for easing needlessly prohibitive licensing and credentialing requirements must follow. New hiring practices and attention to the detail of an individual applicant’s education and training will be ever more vital in the coming years.

Reflecting on his unsuccessful experience in Portland that afternoon, Ayodele Okorie nailed it.

“A bunch of brains are going down the drain.”

Reprinted from the Portland Press Herald

 

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