WINDHAM, MAINE — Lobster dealers are partnering with the Maine Department of Corrections in a new program that's intended to help them find the workers they need.
Annie Tselikis, executive director of Maine Lobster Dealers' Association, said the new initiative is intended to address the same story she hears all the time from lobster companies ranging from Kittery to Lubec: They're struggling to find the workers they need to process and ship live lobsters around the world.
A strong economy, low unemployment rates and changes to the H2B visa program are just a few of the reasons for those workforce hiring challenges.
Recognizing it would take some creativity to solve that problem, Tselikis and the dealers reached out to the Maine Department of Corrections to create a program to hire offenders with the right knowledge and skills for jobs in the lobster industry after they've been released from prison.
The program, which will result in offenders receiving a Maine Lobster Dealers' Association certificate, kicks off today for offenders at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
"It is hard for us to quantify how many jobs need to be filled right now," Tselikis said in a news release. "There are positions posted that go unfilled, forcing companies to attempt to fill by personal connections."
But hiring personal acquaintances doesn't always result in a permanent employee, she noted. That's why lobster companies are embracing the new program to hire qualified workers who've completed their time in prison and are eager to be gainfully employed.
"Rallying interest for an industry we love is a great opportunity," she said. "Being able to do that while helping people get back on track makes it even more meaningful."
Tselikis and members of the association plan to give a presentation to up to 55 offenders at the Windham correctional center who've expressed interest in the program and have been approved to discuss their skills and interest with MLDA members who'll be attending today's session.
The presentation is designed to orient offenders about the different career paths available within the supply chain portion of the lobster industry, Tselikis said.
Preparing inmates for 'meaningful work'
Offenders enrolled in the certificate-earning program will participate in workshops taught by lobster industry professionals. The workshops will teach skills including: supply chain dynamics, handling of lobsters, packaging and shipping, and warehouse and plant safety.
Tselikis said she became interested in the partnership with the Department of Corrections while attending a meeting of 120 Maine employers at the Maine State Prison in September.
Organized by the Maine Department of Labor, the first-of-its-kind event for employers included multiple panel presentations by employers who've worked with the criminal justice system in hiring workers; information on accessing tax credits; and powerful testimony by incarcerated men and women who spoke of their journey into incarceration and the education and job training programs they are involved in, as a path out of the justice system.
"There is potential to scale this training to other Department of Corrections facilities, either with similar in-person trainings or via the department's new tablet technology," said Tselikis. "We hope we are helping people transition out of the system and back into communities by readying them to be part of the lobster community."
Ryan Thornell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections, noted that Maine's prison system releases approximately 1,200 men and women a year — roughly 100 a month.
"Preparing these individuals for meaningful work is our duty," he said.
Thornell noted that other Maine industries have made good use of the opportunity to come into a DOC facility to train their future workforce, including the hospitality industry.
"We recognize the unique position we are in, that helping those in custody prepare for in-demand Maine jobs has a direct and positive impact on Maine's economic and labor outlook," he said.