Maine lobster industry partnering with state prisons to address workforce woes

Published on
December 21, 2018

There is ample opportunity to be had in Maine’s USD 1 billion (EUR 876 million) lobster industry for those who are eager and interested in the work.

That was the overarching message shared with a group of inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine, U.S.A. on 7 December, during a kickoff session for a new training program aimed at readying incarcerated Mainers with the skills, knowledge, and abilities to potentially land a job in the lobster industry upon release from prison. 

Established through a collaboration between the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association and the Maine Department of Corrections, the certificate-earning program is comprised of a series of workshops focused on supply chain dynamics, lobster handling, packaging and shipping, and warehouse and plant safety. 

Around 45-55 offenders were in attendance during the initial information session hosted in Windham earlier this month, which saw local lobster businesses such as Cozy Harbor Seafood, Ready Seafood, and Inland Seafood conduct presentations on the career paths and possibilities available within the industry.  

Representatives from the companies, alongside Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association Executive Director Annie Tselikis, spoke to the attending prisoners about the troubles they’ve been facing beyond bars trying to build their workforces. Low unemployment rates and changes to the H2B visa program have presented challenges for hiring as far as lobster companies are concerned in today’s booming economy, explained Tselikis.

“It is hard for us to quantify how many jobs need to be filled right now. There are positions posted that go unfilled, forcing companies to attempt to fill by personal connections,” Tselikis said. 

“There are a wide variety of positions that are required and that we need in order to be successful in our business, and we’re looking to you guys as trying to help us as we’re continuing to grow our industry,” she added, addressing a room of over 40 offenders during the second of two informational sessions held at the medium-security prison facility on 7 December. “There is great opportunity for expansion within our industry based on demand for this product that we’re experiencing in the marketplace.”

The idea for the lobster industry-specific training program came about in September, when Tselikis attended a convention of 120 Maine employers at the Maine State Prison for a first-of-its-kind event, HireME. Organized with the Department of Labor, the event featured multiple panel presentations moderated by employers who utilize the justice-involved workforce. Employers in attendance “heard 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,” Tselikis said. 

For Corrections Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell, it’s partnerships like the one being forged with the lobster industry that become exponentially meaningful for his department and the individuals it works to rehabilitate.

“Preparing these individuals for meaningful work is our duty,” Thornell said. “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.”

While addressing offenders during the lobster training session earlier this month, Thornell stressed how building a sustainable life and career in such a regionally-relevant field can positively impact Maine and its communities.

“We have made a very concerted effort as a department over the last year and a half to partner with the Department of Labor and labor agency organizations to provide job training opportunities to you,” he said. “It’s in our best interest, everybody’s best interest, for you to be trained in a useable skillset, vocational skillset, before you leave us. So, you can take that skillset into the community, hopefully get a job where it’s applicable, and have a sustainable life.” 

“This training allows you to give back to Maine. The lobster industry is a Maine industry – Maine is known for lobsters – and you have an opportunity to impact the workforce in the lobster industry, but also your communities by working in the industry, being a responsible citizen in the industry, and giving back,” Thornell said.

Approximately 1,200 men and women are released from the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) a year, translating to roughly 100 a month, according to the DOC. Scott Landry, the Warden of the Maine Correctional facility in Windham, highlighted the advantages available within the lobster industry for inmates leaving incarceration in the current economic climate. 

“You have a huge advantage right now. Not only in the fact that Maine is very short on workers. But you have [this industry] willing to come in here and not just to tell you that they have openings, but actually help you to be successful having a career in the industry,” Landry said. 

“I was surprised to learn how much they offer in the lobster industry across the state,” he added. “It’s a very important industry in our state, but it’s not just the lobstermen in the back of a boat wearing a raincoat and hauling up a trap. There’s much, much more to it. It’s a heck of an opportunity.”

Inmates attending the informational sessions on 7 December, while enthusiastic about the opportunities available working for Maine’s lobster industry, did express concern relating to how they would be perceived given their pasts during the hiring process. Tselikis and the participating industry representatives were frank in their responses to such fears. 

“This is an industry that’s pretty good at giving second chances to people. We’re pretty open-minded, that’s why we’re here,” Tselikis said. “This is a place where you can find a career. You can come into an entry-level position, and if you have the drive and the desire to grow within this industry, it is totally something that you can do. Somebody can walk in off the street and not have any prior experience in the lobster business, and be very successful in our industry as long as they’re willing to work hard, show up, and be part of the team."

Additional program sessions featuring networking opportunities, forklift training, and more are being scheduled for 2019, according to Tselikis. Other seafood industry members, both within Maine and elsewhere, who are interested in this existing program or building one of their own in a different state are encouraged to contact the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. 

“There is potential to scale this training to other DOC facilities, either with similar in-person trainings or via DOC’s new tablet technology,” Tselikis said. “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.”

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