A growing consensus of business and community leaders is aware that Maine’s local economy will need partnerships between locally owned business and non-profits, and new residents in Maine, including New Mainers. The demographic math in Maine is clear – we need more folks moving here and we need those folks to be able to meaningfully participate in growing our workforce. Dollars spent on local business stay in the local economy and raise the standard of living for all. New Mainers are a critical part of the population increase Maine needs, but they face particular challenges to being able to fully integrate and thrive in our local economies.
Coastal Enterprises, Inc. and American Roots partnered with GoodWill Industries, Portland Adult Ed and others at their Portland Job Alliance to tackle these barriers head-on and grow our local economy for all.
I was drawn to the story of CEI, the Portland Job Alliance, and American Roots as a collaboration between non-profits, a for-profit, and New Mainers when I first read about the story here on CEI’s website. I wanted to learn more:
- How did CEI and the Portland Job Alliance first connect with American Roots – how do we find more opportunities like this in our local markets?
- What did American Roots need to do to succeed in diversifying their workforce, and was this project an overall benefit to their business?
- How did this project impact those that went through the training program and got hired?
I decided to dig deeper and find out the answers. Thanks to Liz Love of CEI, Whitney Reynolds and Ben Waxman co-founders of American Roots, and Anaam Jabbir for taking the time to chat with me about this project and the road ahead.
Below are notes from connecting with key stakeholders in this project, but first – here are my major take-aways for entrepreneurs and local leaders interested in launching projects in workforce development with an eye to diversity:
- Start with the impact – CEI and Portland Job Alliance didn’t seek to start a workforce program detached from actual market needs. They based their support in immediate, on the ground needs from businesses by building strong relationships in the for-profit community. That helped connect their resources to the greatest impact in the local economy.
- You won’t know what you need in advance, so build it while you plan it – In shifting the status quo of our workforce, we need to build programs while executing them because we simply don’t know what we don’t know. Building flexible assessment processes, and allowing ourselves to build programs in real time along with our users allow us to make sure the programs we create meet actual needs.
- Learn, learn, and then learn some more – When working across lines of difference, business leaders must do their own learning to fully integrate new populations in their businesses. The strongest companies don’t simply ask new workers to come in and assimilate, they understand that their workplace will be stronger if new workers and business leaders learn with each other and seek innovation from diverse viewpoints.
- Invest in people, not just process – CEI, American Roots, and Trainees needed to build strong relationships to have the type of trust, direct communication, and collaboration to understand the impact they wanted to have, and the projects they needed to meet their collective and individual needs.
Liz Love, CEI
How did you and the Portland Alliance go about identifying the need for stitchers in the community? Was that the initial need you set out to fill, or was there a different need you identified that then led you to set up this project?
The Portland Jobs Alliance was created through a Community Development Block Grant with the City of Portland to support expanding businesses recruit and train workers, with an emphasis on low to moderate income job seekers. We initially heard that Dory Waxman from Old Port Wool and Textile Co. was expanding and looking to hire stitchers, and we knew stitchers were in short supply in our local job market. They were the company we partnered with for the first training in the Summer of 2015. After our first stitcher training’s success, OPWT decided to launch a sister company, American Roots, run by Dory’s son and fiancé, Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds. They had ambitious goals to grow quickly and hire stitchers, and asked for our training support as well.
How did you work with American Roots to set-up this jobs program? What special considerations or challenges did you have to navigate?
The first step was to meet with Ben and Whitney, and listen to their workforce needs. They wanted to develop a customized training to advance participants’ sewing skills and learn to produce AR products. They were also committed to creating quality jobs, and investing in their workers. To find enough referrals for program participants we had to expand beyond the 5 contracted service providers in the Portland Jobs Alliance, and reach out to our full network of educational and workforce agencies. While quite a few people were interested in participating, many didn’t have sewing experience, which was a criteria for the class. We also needed to navigate the challenge of language barriers – the vast majority of referrals were New Mainers, and some had sewing experience, but not enough English to be successful.
How did you design the training for stitchers? Were there any special considerations?
We gave OPWT and American Roots a lot of flexibility to design their own training curriculum and select their own instructor. We agreed on a budget, and they invoiced us for the cost of the training. We specifically added an English and Math reinforcement component of the training, and contracted with Portland Adult Ed for this component of the training.
What specific knowledge, skills, or tactical decisions do you believe helped you be successful on this project?
We had to be persistent, creative and nimble in the recruitment of both trainings (OPWT, summer 2015 and American Roots, Fall 2015). We sent emails, made phone calls, and put up flyers to recruit at multiple agencies. When we recognized all of the participants were New Mainers, we made sure to have a strong English and Math reinforcement component of the training to help them learn key vocabulary and the US measurement system.
What advice would you offer to other regional economic development organizations that might be looking to replicate your success?
- Work closely with the employer to make sure you are meeting their specific needs
- Foster strong relationships with service providers to ensure quality referrals
- it’s important to be as nimble and flexible as possible, and to act with urgency
Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds, American Roots
How did you determine that a diverse workforce and a partnership with CEI would be useful for your business?
We started this business after I (Ben) had spent many years working in labor unions in the US. We didn’t set-out to create a diverse workforce, we set out to create a great American-made product. When we needed stitchers, a partnership with CEI and their partners offered us training for a new workforce and the opportunity to invest in local workers. When we opened our first call for stitchers we were (pleasantly) surprised to see that a diverse group of people applied, and we learned that many immigrants to Portland had technical expertise in stitching in their home countries and were interested in using those important skills here.
How did you prepare for the entry of a new workforce? What if any preparation did you implement to build an inclusive work space?
Well, we started with a mindset focused on learning. Our only bad days were the days we weren’t learning. In creating any team, you have to learn to meet people where they are at. To learn, you have to slow down. Sometimes, early on, there were cultural differences that were showing up in the workplace and we had to be sensitive and curious to learn about those differences and address and welcome them. It turns out, the best practices for creating an inclusive workplace are very much the same as the best practices for creating a great team.
The other essential piece was language skills – for all us. English is the primary language at our factory and we are supporting workers in English classes with Portland Adult Ed. But that isn’t sufficient. We also had to learn new words and phrases to help with the transition, and that was an important investment in time for us.
What knowledge, skills, or actions were critical to your success on this project?
Understand the infrastructure of your business and industry as well as possible, and do your research on who is available to partner with you. Get the full background on your potential workforce – who lives where and who has the skills you need. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Seeking innovative partnerships with public sectors organizations has been a benefit to our organization.
Anaam Jabbir, Stitcher at American Roots
What has the impact of the training program been for you?
In my home country, our stitching projects were simple. These projects here are a real challenge, and I have enjoyed learning new skills on this job. It feels good to take on a challenge. I have more confidence now, and I have learned to learn from my mistakes.
Would you encourage others in Maine to pursue a training program such as this one, and if so – what advice would you have for them?
Yes, I would recommend that others try it. Give yourself time to learn new things, work hard at it and stick with it!