Maine's seasonal workforce
According to the Center for Workforce Research and Information, Maine sees a 3% spike in employment for June, July, and August. To put a number on it, Maine’s seasonal businesses are employing around 20,500 more people each month in the summer. As anyone who runs a seasonal business in Maine knows, that number is not high enough.
It’s a struggle for Maine’s seasonal businesses to get fully staffed each spring, and it seems to get harder and harder each year. Mainland businesses, particularly in high traffic tourist destinations like Bar Harbor and Ogunquit, rely heavily on the H-2B visa program, which allows a predetermined number of out-of-country workers to work seasonal jobs in the United States. Even with 30,000 visas being released nationally this summer, Maine’s businesses will still have a difficult time getting fully staffed. According to Portland immigration attorney Marcus Jaynes, the needs of our small businesses are much greater than the cap for H-2B workers.
Another visa program that can help with seasonal employment is the J-1 student visa program. We recently spoke with Marnel Bubar, co-owner of The North Haven Grocery. Marnel told us that five summers ago when they were having a particularly hard time finding employees, she turned to Cultural Homestay International, a program that pairs international students with employers in the US. Since then, she has hired two to three students each summer through this program and has had employees from Turkey, Jordan, Montenegro, and Kazakhstan. Marnel said that they have all been great employees, and some have returned for more than one summer. However, this year she was only granted one student worker visa, and she has no idea why she didn’t get more. She is currently scrambling to find enough workers for the quickly approaching summer.
Unlike many businesses, one advantage The North Haven Grocery has is that it can provide housing—they have an apartment specifically for their seasonal workforce. Additionally, Marnel and her husband own an inn on the same property, so they have housing options many island businesses do not.
Housing is a big issue for seasonal businesses. When we recently held a small business gathering on Islesboro to talk about the island’s potential small business needs, the main topic ended up being workforce housing. Residents in the room felt like they couldn't create new businesses or grow their current their ones due to the island's lack of available workforce, and in order to grow their workforce, they need more housing. Islesboro isn't unique in this need—almost every island feels this in one way or another.
Ultimately, when local businesses struggle to find employees, it leads to reducing hours or capacity which then leads to a negative economic impact on the whole community. If the local restaurant can’t stay open seven nights a week in the summertime, then they’re buying fewer lobsters, and this domino effect trickles down through the whole community.
We know we're probably preaching to the choir, and we would love to hear if anyone reading this has an innovative way that they’re dealing with this issue. In our Commercial Currents newsletters we generally try to offer small business resources or tips, so this is a bit of a reversal for us. However, Maine’s seasonal workforce is a vast issue that touches on a wide variety of needs, including housing and island wage inflation, and there aren’t any one-fits-all solutions.
Most Maine island businesses owners that we know rely on their New England ingenuity to find, hire, and retain good staff. Somehow, they always get it done, but it’s never easy.
We would love to hear how you do it!
Please reach out to Claire Donnelly if you have a seasonal workforce success story you would like to share.
- Center for Workforce Research and Information
- Cultural Homestay International
- Apply to Host a J-1 Visa Student Worker
What We Do
The Island Institute’s Small Business Team provides business and financial planning to help entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of starting and growing a business. For more information on our small business support services, feel free to contact Craig Olson.
Commercial Currents is an email and blog newsletter that shares buoyant stories from Maine’s island and coastal communities about economic stability and resilience. To find archived editions, go to islandinstitute.org/blog/economic.
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