Portland council to get proposal for Economic Opportunity office

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PORTLAND — City councilors next month will be asked to set up a new office to help link immigrants and employers.

“As long as we are clear it is not a place where you come to apply for a job,” Councilor David Brenerman said Nov. 22 as the Economic Development Committee he leads unanimously endorsed creating an Office of Economic Opportunity.

As outlined in a memo from Julie Sullivan, senior advisor to City Manager Jon Jennings, the office would be staffed by a director and two program managers at an initial annual cost of $259,000. Sullivan anticipates grants could cover $165,000 of the cost, including $140,000 for the program managers. She said she has heard from four potential funding sources.

Councilors could hold a public hearing and vote on creating the office on Dec. 19.

“Ideally … we can start the process in January to hire a director,” Sullivan said, adding the full program costs and salaries would be lower at first as the fiscal year is approaching its midpoint.

Committee support for the concept was unanimous for everything but the name, as Brenerman and Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Justin Costa eventually decided to drop “Immigrant Integration” from the title.

The office mission statement will be revised, too, in order to reflect its role in linking employers and labor while identifying the gaps that are preventing new Mainers from getting employed to the utmost of their skills.

In her memo, Sullivan identified 34 nonprofits, agencies and community groups now working with immigrants to provide job training, career counseling, English language instruction and legal assistance, although all are not strictly working with immigrants.

“(I) also found no one is doing systematic outreach to employers,” she said, adding there are still gaps in providing varied levels of English instruction and assisting with transportation and childcare for the workforce.

Sullivan said there continues to be an issue where people who have worked jobs such as engineering or in the legal field in their countries of origin are underemployed now because of language barriers or credentials or certifications that are not transferring.

Establishing a “New Mainers Office” has been an objective for councilors and Jennings for more than a year, and was supported by Mayor Ethan Strimling as he campaigned in 2015.

Strimling attended the committee meeting and added his own thoughts to the discussion.

“One of the things I was concerned with was, would we give it the heft it needed,” he noted, while also suggesting the office mission statement be amended so it would not appear to be “trying to be all things to everyone.”

The new office was also supported in about 30 minutes of public comment.

“The city as a governing body is really in a better to position to leverage what other people are doing,” Maine People’s Alliance Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice Organizer Alain Nahimana said.

Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Community Financial Literacy, was concerned about relying on grants, and suggested businesses pay for program managers, since the office will be helping to link labor and employers.

“I can’t think of many employers that would fund the city to run this office,” Sullivan said.

Throughout the meeting, councilors, Sullivan and the public made it clear they do not envision the office would provide direct services or assistance. Instead, it will focus on linking people in need of work with employers facing tight labor markets.

“Think strategically and on the policy level,” said Bridget Kahn, a local teacher who also coordinates projects at the Portland Adult Education New Mainers Resource Center.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.