Angela Okafor studied law in Nigeria, and after emigrating to Maine she studied and passed the state’s bar exam on her first try.
But Okafor, who speaks perfect English, said she couldn’t get a single Maine law firm to hire her. She ended up getting a job washing dishes.
“I worked in a dish room, a licensed attorney,” she said.
Immigrant entrepreneurs in Maine who spoke on a panel Friday as part of the Startup Maine conference in Portland said that despite a severe shortage of knowledge workers in the state, anti-immigrant prejudice prevents many Maine companies from hiring skilled foreign nationals.
Nawar Alobaidi, an electrical engineer from Iraq, had an experience similar to Okafor’s when he applied for jobs in Maine after escaping persecution by Islamic terrorists in 2012.
“They either said I was overqualified, or that I didn’t graduate in the U.S.,” Alobaidi said. He eventually got a job working as an employment case managemant supervisor at Catholic Charities Maine, an organization that helps many immigrants when they arrive in the state.
Stefanie Trice Gill, a professional recruiter of international knowledge workers and owner of IntWork in Portland, said a common refrain skilled immigrants hear from Maine employers is that they “don’t have enough Maine experience.”
“I think ‘Maine experience’ is a code,” she said. “It’s cronyism. The idea is that if you’re from away, somehow your knowledge, your experiences, are less valuable.”
Rwandan immigrant Dieudonne Nzeyimana said there seems to be a serious disconnect between the words of Maine economic leaders, who stress the need to capitalize on foreign expertise for the sake of economic growth, and Maine employers, who often seem uncomfortable hiring foreigners.
Nzeyimana, an intern at the Manufacturers Association of Maine, suggested that such prejudice could be costly to Maine’s economic future.
“A tsunami is coming in five years, and that tsunami is lack of workers,” he said.
The Maine Department of Labor has predicted that by 2022, nearly one-fourth of Maine residents will be at least 65 years old. An estimated 400,000 working Mainers are expected to retire by 2032, and current population trends suggest there will only be about 300,000 new workers in the state to replace them.
In 2010, the nonprofit Maine Development Foundation set out to determine what it would take to make up an anticipated shortfall of 65,000 workers in the state by 2020. Along with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, it asked more than 1,000 business leaders for their input.
The general consensus was that bridging the gap would require a significant boost in workforce participation among those already living in Maine, as well as redoubling efforts to recruit workers from outside the state.
According to the foundation, roughly 20,000 young adults living out of state would need to be lured to Maine, along with about 12,000 foreign nationals. In addition, 10,000 Mainers with disabilities, 12,000 older residents, 5,000 veterans and 6,000 disengaged youths would need to be coaxed into the workforce.
Trice Gill said top company executives in Maine generally understand the need to tap into immigrant knowledge and expertise, but the same cannot necessarily be said for the front-line managers who screen job candidates.
“It’s often not the CEO; it’s the hiring manager (who is rejecting immigrant applicants),” she said.
Okafor and Alobaidi ultimately did what many immigrants in Maine do after going through the frustration of trying to get hired: They started their own businesses.
Okafor, who lives in Bangor, has two businesses now. She operates her own private legal practice, and she also owns a store called Tropical Tastes International Market.
Alobaidi, in addition to his job at Catholic Charities, owns a business on Forest Avenue in Portland called Foodie Friends Grocery & Restaurant.
The immigrant entrepreneurs said there is much to like about Maine, and that most of the people they’ve met have been welcoming. Still, they said running into prejudice is a regular occurrence.
“I was called names that I was never exposed to growing up,” said Dr. Krishna Jamadagni, a physician who emigrated from India to Bangor and is now in the process of establishing his own startup company through the state’s Top Gun business accelerator program.
Okafor said it’s important for immigrants in Maine not to let rejection discourage them and prevent them from trying to succeed. She said Mainers also need to work on being more accepting of their immigrant neighbors.
“For me, it still boils down to attitude,” Okafor said. “Local Mainers need to open their minds.”
The immigrant entrepreneurs spoke at one of several panel discussions Friday as part of Startup Maine, a three-day annual conference at Maine College of Art in Portland that focuses on challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs in Maine.
Startup Maine organizer Katie Shorey said about 500 people attended the conference, which started Thursday and ends Saturday.
A group of immigrant entrepreneurs spoke on a panel Friday in Portland about the prejudices they faced while trying to get hired in Maine. From left are Angela Okafor, Nawar Alobaidi, Dr. Krishna Jamadagni, Eric Kalala and moderator Stefanie Trice Gill. (J. Craig Anderson/Portland Press Herald)