Joe Qualey, a welder and grinder with Messer Truck Equipment, welds a tailgate that is being installed on a pickup. The Westbrook manufacturer is always looking for technicians, welders and people who can work with electrical systems, but those skilled workers can often be lured away. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

First of five parts

On a bright June afternoon recruiters for about 10 health care companies lined the hallway at the Portland Career Center.

They sat behind folding tables piled high with job applications, and advertisements for training, professional development and signing bonuses. Pens, water bottles, stress balls and other freebies were arranged to lure job seekers for dozens of empty positions.

Over the course of a few hours, just a trickle of workers came through. Recruiters and human resources managers worked on laptops, scrolled on their cellphones or chatted with each other to pass the time.

“It is not an employer’s market – it is an employee’s market,” said Denise Jodoin-Gaidis, operations manager at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

Jodoin-Gaidis has spent hours and hours at recent job fairs, desperately hiring therapists for individuals with autism. The result is the same – only a few job seekers and almost no applicants. The likelihood of hiring someone is slim, but she shows up to fairs anyway.


“Even if you just get your name out there, there might be someone who considers a position,” Jodoin-Gaidis said.

Moses Sebunya of the State Department of Labor talks to Jim Dorrington of Coastal Care Solutions at a hiring event for health care and hospitality employers. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Two years after an unemployment tsunami threw 1 in 10 Maine workers out of a job, the state’s labor market has been set to hyperdrive. Urgent hiring signs are everywhere. In southern Maine, $15 an hour is a de facto starting wage, $2.25 more than the statewide minimum.

But many employers are still having an impossible time finding workers.

When the first wave of the pandemic abated in late 2020, even rising wages and benefits were unable to bring displaced workers back to jobs and the worker shortage was described as a crisis. At the time, explanations for the labor shortage were legion – generous unemployment benefits, health concerns from the ongoing pandemic, limited child care and inconvenient school schedules kept workers out of jobs.

Today the public health crisis has eased, federal jobless aid is gone, regular school schedules are back, and Mainers are getting used to what passes as normal.

The job market has reacted. In the first seven months of the year Maine employers added thousands of jobs and the unemployment rate dropped to 2.8%, nearly the same level as a historic low in spring 2019. The labor market is even tighter in Maine’s populous south. In July, joblessness ranged from 2.2% to 2.3% in Cumberland, York and Sagadahoc counties.


Maine now has nearly as many jobs as it did at the same time in 2019, but that has not been enough to sate employers’ appetite for people. In June, the latest month for which there is data, there were 48,000 open jobs in Maine – more than two positions for every unemployed worker.

“In general, we have seen a really robust jobs recovery in Maine that just continues to inch back up to where we were compared to pre-pandemic,” said Mark McInerney, the head of Maine’s labor economics clearinghouse.

“What I am seeing is, yes, the labor market is very tight, the unemployment rate continues to tick lower, which suggests the vast number of people who want a job can find one.”

At the same time, the proportion of Mainers in work or actively looking for a job is at its lowest point in nearly 50 years. In raw numbers, more than 21,000 fewer people are in the labor force now than there were just before the pandemic, a mammoth loss in a labor market this tight.

So everyone wants to know: What happened to all the workers? And when are they coming back?

The answer is unpleasant: They’re probably not.


Workers retired, changed careers and started their own businesses.

A February report from the St. Louis Federal Reserve highlighted two reasons for a lack of workers. First, the retirement rate shot up during the pandemic, and about 2.4 million people left the workforce, some before 65, the traditional retirement age. Second, family care pulled workers out of the labor force during the pandemic and has kept them out in higher numbers.

When will workers come back? That’s an open question too. In an April survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, about a quarter of respondents said they had not returned to work because the jobs available were not in their field of work interest. Another 18% said nothing would compel them to return. Concerns over workplace requirements – vaccine or mask mandates – jobs that don’t pay enough and not enough remote work opportunities were highlighted as other barriers.

Executive sous chef Ryan Jalbert garnishes a dish at Via Vecchia in Portland. The restaurant’s owner, Josh Miranda, says his strategy has been to push wages higher and limit grueling kitchen culture. “I want (employees) to be happy,” Miranda says. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Workers’ retreat from the labor force or selection of better jobs left a gulf of essential jobs in Maine – cashiers, dishwashers, truck drivers, health aides, counselors, teachers, even people needed to print newspapers – leaving employers struggling to keep regular hours, offer customers the services they expect or even stay open entirely. The bottom line? Maine’s shallow labor pool may be the best employers can expect right now.


There’s no silver bullet for Maine’s strained workforce. More workers are retiring than taking jobs. New immigrants seeking political asylum are banned from getting work permits for five months or more. Child care, housing and transportation are expensive or unavailable. The people in the labor market don’t have the skills or experience employers want.


Some aspects – skills and an aging workforce – are evergreen challenges. Other barriers were brought into focus during the pandemic.

“I think things are different in terms of what we think about,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “How child care, housing, things that we never really thought of as business issues before, have become very much a paramount concern when it comes to workforce availability.”

Connors also pushes back on the idea that the current labor market is the best Maine can do. The abrupt swing from historically high unemployment to a full-blown economic recovery two years ago gave way to recognition that staffing will take every arrow in the quiver.

“The workforce challenge still remains, but optimism is founded in the attitude of various businesses that are really trying everything they can to address what it will take to bring people back to work,” Connors said. “I think that is the root cause of a lot of the progress we are seeing.”

Sabrina Daoud picks up food while serving at Via Vecchia. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The heightened competition in the labor market means workers have more freedom to bargain for salaries and benefits or leave jobs for something they like better. In June, about 19,000 Mainers – 3% of the state’s labor force – left their jobs.

The exodus of workers has been called a “great resignation,” but most people didn’t leave the labor force – they upgraded to jobs with better pay, hours, working conditions and culture. Instead of quitting, workers renegotiated their labor.


“Workers are thinking about what is it they want out of a job,” Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said. “Where do they want to work, how do they want to work? It is not wages and benefits alone; people are looking for different things, the meaning of their work and how it connects to community good.”

Employers have responded. From white-collar professions to low-wage hourly jobs, employers are moving to make their companies a place people want to work and stay.

“I think the challenge for employers is to continually think about how to make work more attractive to employees. Thirty years ago employers didn’t think about that too much,” said Joan Fortin, CEO of the Portland law firm Bernstein Shur. The firm has boosted its pay and benefits but also advertises a path to firm partnership and an attractive standard of living to draw recruits from Boston and New York.

“It is kind of more of a service mentality,” Fortin said. “We need to serve them and meet their needs and make this an attractive place to spend their time and careers.”


At Via Vecchia, an Italian restaurant in Portland, owner Josh Miranda has the same approach. Miranda is in a much better position than he was last year, able to open for dinner six days a week. He pushed starting wages to $20 to $22 an hour for kitchen work, but more important was curbing overworked kitchen culture.


Cory Labrecque, chef de cuisine, works the kitchen at the Italian restaurant Via Vecchia in Portland. In the wake of pandemic pressures, work hours are limited here and employees are encouraged to take paid time off. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gone are the grueling 70-hour weeks with no respite. Instead, work hours are limited to bearable weeks and Miranda encourages employees to take paid time off.

“It was a much-needed change. I think during this whole shake-up a lot of people left the industry, but this is one of the things that bring people back,” Miranda added. “If I have to spend 40 hours a week with people, I want them to be happy. I want them to be valued and appreciated.”

Overall, Maine’s labor market has recovered, but it has been uneven. Construction, business services and wholesale trade had more jobs than they did prior to the pandemic.

Industries that were heavily affected by the pandemic, such as leisure and hospitality, social services and local government – especially primary education – remain below 2019 levels.

“Really in restaurants, bars, hotels and nursing and residential care we still see pretty substantial gaps in staffing levels at some establishments,” McInerney said. Those lower-paying jobs are taxing and during the pandemic more difficult and dangerous. When workers lost their jobs in early 2020 many left the industries for good.

Joe Arsenault, a van technician, installs a new floor and partition into a van at Messer Truck Equipment. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Out of more than 1,900 workers in nursing and residential care facilities laid off between March and June 2020, almost two-thirds did not return to a job in the industry, according to Maine labor department research.


In June, Sweetser, a mental health agency, was advertising more than 120 open jobs. Many positions were for untrained direct care professionals, family counselors and other entry-level positions pledging sign-on bonuses from $5,000 to $7,500.

Even with that incentive, Sweetser has trouble hiring enough new workers and keeping workers to serve vulnerable children. Carol Mundigler, who is in charge of recruitment for Sweetser, can’t explain why getting people into jobs is so hard now.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said. “If we had the answer to that, we would all have the workers we need.”


Despite unique challenges regarding the state’s aging population and highly seasonal job market, Maine’s labor market is not significantly different from the nation at large. In June there were 48,000 open jobs in the state, about 7% of total employment.

Austin Sires is a paint apprentice at Messer Truck Equipment in Westbrook. The company has turned to fast-track training for new and existing employees through a Harold Alfond-funded initiative at Southern Maine Community College. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nationally, the job opening rate was 6.6%. Maine’s rate was similar to nearby states such as New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, between 6 and 8 percent.


The rate of job openings in Maine was the same or lower as states with much younger populations such as Texas, North Dakota and Alaska – all between 6.7% and 7.2%.

But Maine is an outlier in how many people have a job or are actively looking for one – a data point called the labor force participation rate.

Maine’s participation rate of 59% has barely budged from its collapse during the pandemic. The state had the eighth-lowest participation rate in the U.S. in July, paired with Louisiana, and more than 2 points lower than the national rate. It is the lowest rate in New England.


Even when the workers are there, they don’t have the skills and experience employers need. The perfect candidate walks into the Westbrook doors of Messer Truck Equipment about once a year, operations manager Becah Riley said.

Max Cloutier crouches under a flatbed he was in the process of bolting to the frame of a truck while working at Messer Truck Equipment in Westbrook recently. It was only his third day on the job, part of the manufacturing company’s focus on training new employees to develop the skills and experience they require to “move up the ranks.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The truck bed and attachment manufacturer is nearly always hiring for technicians, welders, people who can work with electric systems. There just aren’t that many around, and those who are can be lured away by higher pay at bigger companies, such as Bath Iron Works.


To fill the gap, the company has turned to fast-track training for new and existing employees through programs such as a Harold Alfond-funded initiative at Southern Maine Community College. Several employees were recently certified as structural welders through that program, earning them higher pay and improving the company’s efficiency.

“That has been the approach with more force this year – hiring more green employees and trying to move them up the ranks,” Riley said.

A mismatch between the skills that employers want and those that unemployed workers have has been a stumbling block to getting jobless Mainers into the workforce.

In a survey last year, more than a third of 2,200 respondents said lack of opportunities that match their skill set was a barrier to employment, a higher proportion than any other factor including COVID-19, wages and child care.

Some workers, including new immigrants to Maine, have the skills but can’t use them.

Ayodele Okorie, who came to Maine from Nigeria, speaks to Nicole Grant, a human resources recruiter from Spurwink, at a hiring event for health care and hospitality employers in Portland this summer. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ayodele Okorie, one of the few people trawling a Portland job fair last month, came away disappointed. Okorie moved from Nigeria to Maine this year with his wife, who landed a job as a nurse. He thought his decades of medical laboratory experience would make getting a job easy. Instead, strict professional certification that doesn’t recognize his foreign credentials threw up barriers immediately. It’s a problem facing many new overseas arrivals to Maine.


“There are a whole lot of openings, but because I am not credentialed, I do not have my pick of any of the jobs,” Okorie said. “A bunch of brains are going down the drain.”


Perhaps no story better illustrates Maine’s hyperactive labor market than that of Ralph and Lisa Turner.

In 2022, after a bruising couple of years, the couple closed Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, which they’d run for 25 years. The Turners’ organic vegetable operation lost two-thirds of its business when restaurant clients shuttered. They then pivoted to a farm store that was eventually overtaken by the return of farmers markets.

At the same time, finding good people to work their fields was a challenge. Newly hired farmhands simply never showed up for work or came for a few days, then left without warning. Those who stayed wanted wages far above what the Turners could afford to pay. After a final, exhausting season, the Turners called it quits.

“We had seedlings we couldn’t plant, crops we couldn’t harvest,” Ralph Turner said. “We just never had enough people. The people we had were more than 100% more expensive than four years earlier. None of us is sustainable unless we make enough this year to do it again next year.”

To their surprise, both Turners, trained engineers now in their 60s, found jobs almost immediately. Ralph got a position as a project manager with the Maine Army National Guard. Lisa was employed as a landfill engineer by the same company she had a career with before leaving 25 years ago.

The same labor shortage that provoked their early departure from farming offered a return to rewarding professions they thought had been left behind.

“I was completely shocked,” Ralph Turner said. “I have no idea who else applied for the job I was lucky enough to get. In a sense we retired from farming to go back to something else useful.”

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