As the owner of a specialty textile firm, Claudia Raessler thinks a lot about wages and workforce development.
Since opening in 2012 in an 18,000-square-foot site in Biddeford, Maine, the Saco River Dyehouse has grown to a staff of 16 who dye wool and natural fibers for customers who want an organic, made-in-USA product.
Ms. Raessler, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, supports the campaign for a higher state minimum wage. It won’t affect her business too much, since most workers earn more. But she has another question: Who are Maine’s future workers? The state is the oldest by median age, and its workforce is shrinking as baby boomers retire and young people move away.
In the dye house, the answer is clear. Among the 16 staff members who dye, skein, pack, and ship the commissioned yarn, five nationalities are represented. The dyeing manager is from Pakistan, and two of her workers are a Chinese couple who moved to Maine in 2011. The dye room – a hot, steamy place – is staffed by Iraqis. This diversity is mirrored in Portland’s schools, where 42 percent of students are nonwhite.
Raessler says she wants her immigrant workers to advance and hopes to recruit more as the firm expands. (It is moving into a larger site in an industrial park this summer.) The challenge in promoting from within, she says, is that her employees may have professional certifications from their home country, but some struggle to communicate in English.
“The hard part isn’t getting them in the door. It’s getting them to a livable wage,” she says.
Evan Guo, one half of the Chinese couple, says he likes his job but points out that he hasn’t had a raise in a year and a half. Life is expensive in America, he says. He and his wife, a former accountant, make more than $14 an hour each, but it’s swallowed up by rent, child care, and car lease payments.
“Money comes in," he says. "And it goes out.”