Skilled Immigrants: Maine’s Hidden Workforce – Stefanie Gill

Skilled Immigrants: Maine's Hidden Workforce - Stefanie GillWith the unemployment rate in Maine–and the entire US–at a historic low, it’s often difficult for companies to find the skilled workers they need to grow.

But according to Stephanie Gill of IntWork, the solution may be hidden in plain sight.

Maine has plenty of skilled workers in the form of work-ready immigrants who were STEM workers in their own country and are proficient English speakers. What do you need to know to tap into this workforce and start growing your company here in Maine?

Rich: Our guest today is the founder and owner of IntWork, a Maine based recruitment company that matches employers with diverse STEM professionals and other unique immigrant talent. She also consults, helping organizations that are seeking to attract and retain diverse customers and/or employees. A native Mainer, she worked for seven years under the Mayor Bloomberg Administration to develop diversity initiatives across New York City’s healthcare sector. Her current work in diversity recruitment spans industries that include engineering, environmental sciences, finance, operations and tech. This past spring, she presented at Disrupt HR on Maine’s hidden talent and the skills gap, available on IntWork’s LinkedIn profile. We’re very happy to have on the show today, Stefanie Gill. Stefanie, welcome.

Stefanie: Thank you.

Yury: We are excited to have you, Stefanie. And first question, you started IntWork, which people can find at What’s the story behind that?

Stefanie: Well, it’s a long story, but I came back to Maine after working on efforts related to immigrant integration in New York City and found a gap. I went through leadership Maine, and I saw numerous examples of employers struggling to find skilled workforce to grow their companies and learned that this was endemic right now in Maine. And at the same time, I was hanging out in the Portland and Lewiston areas meeting people. I’m a linguist, so I speak various languages, and was able to communicate with a lot of the new immigrants and found out that a large percentage of them were the exact skills and trades that the employers were lamenting a lack of talent. And so I kind of took it as a calling. I’ve got to start figuring how to connect these two pieces, and thus, IntWork was born. After years of pro bono work, I started it as a company.

Rich: Turned it into a business, excellent. Well, as a lot of people know, we have a historically low unemployment rate right now here in Maine and across the US. Do you feel that we’re overlooking good candidates? This is the hidden workforce that you talk about?

Stefanie: Absolutely. A large percentage of those who come here have extensive experience working with the US army Corps of Engineers or with US companies. So one example is, a woman I met, her and her husband, who moved here from Burundi, and I had them over to my house for dinner. One of them was a candidate, they both ended up being candidates, but the woman was saying, “Well, I have a law degree and a master’s in law and I oversaw procurement for the US in Burundi. But since I’ve been told I can’t be a lawyer here, so I’m going to be exploring different home-health options and other types of low-level, low-paid jobs.” And I said, “Oh no, no, no. We’re not going to have happen.” And so within a week, I was able to connect her with a job opportunity that resulted in her getting hired and then promoted very soon thereafter as a chief procurement officer for a company. So it’s that type of thing of just saying, “No, that just doesn’t sound right. Let’s change that.”

Rich: That’s awesome. And I guess I’m curious about, do we know if there’s a percentage of immigrants who are coming and settling in Maine that have these higher skill levels? I’m just not hearing about that in the news. And so that’s why it’s so interesting to hear about this one particular woman. Is she kind of an outlier or this is something that’s more common than we’ve been led to believe?

Stefanie: Not an outlier. We joke that it’s when I walked down the street and I meet someone who is a recent immigrant, let’s say those from Angola that are coming here now, I speak Portuguese, I greet them and I say, “Hey, I’m curious, what did you do in your country?” I would say a good 40% have either engineering or other STEM background and have fluency in English. So they are work ready. That’s what I place is work ready professionals.

Yury: These are quite mind boggling stats, and it’s quite a, awesome story, so thank you for sharing. So if we think about these potential work-ready employees, how can we reach them, and what does it mean to be a work ready?

Rich: Right, because I don’t think we can rely on you walking down every street in Portland and Lewiston and to find these people.

Stefanie: Well, think twice.

Yury: Or hosting dinner parties at your house.

Rich: We need to scale this up.

Stefanie: Well, think twice. And actually, I’ve been working on this since as far back as 2012. So word has traveled, and now I have a system through which, not only do I go out to the places where I know I’ll meet people, but there’s a lot of word of mouth referrals. So when someone arrives here, people say, “Oh, wow, you need to meet Stefanie.” And they upload their resume through my website. I’m able to screen them, and I have a team of consultants working with me on recruitment to make sure that we can screen and find the most job ready. We then do phone screening.

Stefanie: So work ready means how good is their English. Is it really someone who can jump into the workplace and add value? A lot of the news about immigrants has been saying, “Oh, well, there’s gaps. There’s a lot that don’t speak English.” But the truth is, there’s a lot that do, and they were working in English environments for 10 plus years or have degrees from English-speaking country. So I find those, ones that recently worked with US or international companies, speak fluent English, have a work permit, and those are the work ready ones that I place.

Rich: All right. What are you hearing on why businesses, or what do you feel about, why businesses employers aren’t hiring these people, especially if they’re complaining that we don’t have a young enough workforce or an educated enough workforce?

Stefanie: Well, I think it’s a culture change. And Maine, you kind of get the L.L.Bean image of happy blonde people in Maine, and it’s hard. We know that, statistically speaking, there’ve been studies. There was a study called is Emily more employable than Latisha, and with identical resumes, the same names with … sorry, two resumes with identical content, but different names, one called Emily and one called Latisha. Emily gets 10 times more calls than Latisha, and Latisha almost never gets in the door. That’s what we’re seeing a lot of in Maine, which is that employers get really excited when they see the content of a resume, if they get to it. But oftentimes, when they’re not working through a recruiter, they’re not able to ask questions like, “So does this person speak English? Will they have a work permit? Will I have problems if I hire them? How are they culturally? Are they going to be a match for our environment?

Stefanie: So there’s a lot of those questions that go through employers minds when they look at a pool of resumes with diverse names. Some names, like I like to use the name of a friend named Dada. So you get an email from someone named Dada and you’re thinking, “Is that a man or a woman? I don’t really know. Is that …” So those are the types of things that make employers want to hire a candidate more like them. And since we don’t have a lot of minorities in HR, that’s one of the other areas of placement I do, it is hard for HR professionals to take that leap and to forward those onto their hiring managers who might have their own doubts and biases.

Rich: Right. We’re all, unfortunately, many of us are more comfortable with people who look, act and sound like we do.

Stefanie: Absolutely. And one thing in Maine too is that oftentimes when people hear an accent, they’re not sure how to tease out whether or not that’s a fluent English speaker with an accent that indicates a gap or if that’s just an accent. And so one of the things I do as a company is help companies tease that out. I do validated language testing, and I can say this person has an advanced high-level spoken English, an advanced mid-level listening skill, and a superior-level reading and writing skill, which means that they’ll do fine in your workplace. Where as someone who has intermediate listening or speaking skills will not.

Rich: I have poor listening skills, but my other skills are excellent.

Yury: Well, now I’m curious. Can I pass your test?

Stefanie: Well, from hearing you speak and from listening to previous podcasts, I would say you have an advanced higher superior level English, so you do fine anywhere.

Yury: Excellent. That sounds phenomenal.

Stefanie: And anyone would be-

Yury: Thank you very much. You’re so generous in your assessment.

Stefanie: And anyone would be lucky to have you speaking with them or working with them.

Yury: Oh, that’s very kind. Well, the next question that I wanted to know, and you kind of briefly mentioned one of the success stories, but how many of those success stories do you have because you said that you done this work for many, many years and that you’ve experienced so many different work-ready immigrants from other countries. What are the other stories that you would like us to learn about?

Stefanie: Well, I think one of the earliest jobs, when I was still doing this pro bono, was when there was a foreign trained doctor from the Congo years ago, and this is more than five years ago, who came here and people said, “Well, you can’t be a doctor here, so you might want to work in home health,” which is really where most of the immigrants are working today in Maine. Unfortunately, a lot of them, no matter how skilled they are, are what I call cleaning floors or cleaning butts. They’re really out there, not in a field that requires the level of skills that they have. And so this guy was thinking, “Well, I’ll go into home healthcare and type of work.” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He had about a year until he got his work permit.

Stefanie: So I invited him to join me on several panels. I included his name in a consultancy report I did for a state agency talking about cultural competence and a cultural competence assessment for major state agencies, saying, “Candidates like this doctor would be a great way to diversify the workforce.” And even after all that, after about a year, I got a call from a vendor for the state saying, “Hey, we have an opening for a leadership position in a healthcare public health position, and we would love to see your resume, Stefanie.” And I said, “Oh, I think you must be mistaken. You couldn’t possibly want my resume. You want Dr. So-and-so’s resume.” And in fact, they kind of said, “Oh, huh. Oh, Oh.” And they ended up hiring him.

Yury: They had that a-ha moment.

Stefanie: But it takes a lot of reminders. It takes a lot of prompts to get people to look at that, but some companies are getting great at. For instance, a company recently, there’s a engineering company in Westbrook that has just hired three of my staff, two engineers, one PhD in chemistry, and another company in Boston that has been contracted with five geologists. So three geologists in Maine who were working at minimum wage jobs have since left their jobs to do tremendously important and well-compensated work with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Rich: Oh, that’s very great to hear. I’m a business owner, and what would be some of the things that you might tell me to help me overcome fears or concerns that I would have about hiring a more diverse workplace or workforce?

Stefanie: Well, the first thing I’d say is you deserve to have an employee who adds value. So the messages that you might sometimes get saying, “Well, give this person a chance. They might not have the skills you need, but really, to do diversity hiring, you need to give people a chance.” I’d say, well, certainly you see companies giving chances sometimes to a friend’s child for an internship and that type of thing, but I would say, in general, companies have a right to have people who will add value.

Stefanie: And so the trick is finding those people who will add value and then also doing whatever groundwork in the company to talk about the changing demographics in the state. And rather than take a soft and fuzzy approach to diversity, I talk to boards and to hiring managers and staff meetings and say, “Let’s talk about the changing demographics. Let’s talk about what it will take for your company to thrive.” So this isn’t love everybody methodology. This is your company is not going to thrive unless it can take on the challenge of incorporating the new diverse STEM workforce that is growing across the country and across the world.

Rich: Well, I like that message that your company deserves this high-quality employee. We may not have looked in that place because we become blind to it. But the bottom line is, this is actually, potentially, the best employee for the job. And in Maine, we’re seeing that there’s just not enough employees out there with STEM skills. So the fact that there are those employees here in the state, but we just don’t know where to look for them or they’re right in front of us and we don’t see it, is an important message for any business owner to understand.

Stefanie: Absolutely.

Yury: So once we find the work-ready immigrant who is skilled, qualified and we are excited, what do the employers need to do to make them feel integrated in their companies? Or are there any special allowances that we should make as employers for our diverse employees?

Stefanie: Well, those are good questions, and that’s where I roll in a couple of hours of cross-cultural consulting for each placement because each employer has different questions. They either might have had a negative experience with diversity hiring in the past, where maybe they hired someone who didn’t have the language skills for the job and they kind of want to hash that out. Or other people would say, “Well, we’re just not sure now that we’re hiring, let’s say, a Muslim employee, does that mean we can’t do our Christmas party? What exactly does this mean?”

Stefanie: So the role I play is both being like the grease between the two parties until they get used to it. And I know my candidates very, very well, and I get to know my clients very, very well. So what I can do is be a middle person that they can bounce ideas off with. And I frequently get calls from candidates, “Hey, I’m wondering about this at work. What do you think I should do?” And I’ll direct them back to the employer, but I’ll give them a little bit of insight maybe on the workplace culture or other issues, and the same thing with employers. So I think each situation is individual, but the main thing is a lot of these folks have worked so much with international environments, there’s not a lot of grease needed.

Yury: Gotcha. That makes sense.

Rich: I would think the more diverse a workforce, the more company parties you could have in a given week. So really, I see no downside to that at all.

Stefanie: True.

Rich: What intangible benefits might a company gain from having a more diverse workforce?

Stefanie: Well, one thing that companies report is that it’s hard to get people to move to Maine. And one of the reasons that I hear from diverse candidates is they come here for a conference or they come here for a vacation, and they say, “Oh my God. It’s so white.” And they just kind of, they see a lack of diverse people in most companies hierarchies. And they think, “I guess this is not a place for me to grow. I don’t feel like I could really … how could I really … I’d have to really stick out to achieve things here.” Whereas when a company with this rich workforce locally, who have already chosen Maine and who wants to stay here and who sometimes have been leaving, starting to leave the state to try to find work in their field again, when companies start hiring them, they position themselves with a more diverse identity, and they make themselves much more appealing to future workers who are considering whether or not Maine would be right for them.

Rich: Right. And I think, as you said before, we’re not taking a chance on these work-ready immigrants, that these are some of the more talented people out there. And so really, it’s in our best interest that by bringing in and creating a more diverse workforce, we’re only going to attract more high-quality candidates to the state and to our companies.

Stefanie: Absolutely.

Yury: Are they any real or versus perceived barriers you have found out there beyond what you’ve already shared?

Stefanie: Well, one thing that comes up is, are there skills equivalent? For instance, engineers, geologists, and that’s where skills testing, licensure tests for engineers, field tests, which the company that’s been hiring a number of our geologists has a field test they do. And so they talk to people on the phone, then they bring them down and have them do a field test and they very quickly can say, “Yeah, this person can do the job.” So one thing is having skills tests. The other is the licensure barrier, for instance, for doctors or engineers or being able to pass the bar for lawyers.

Stefanie: And so I work with candidates and I’ll say, “Look, here’s what are your choices right now, and here’s what I want you to do over the next year and come back to me when you’re licensed or ready to take the licensure test.” So I work with a lot of people. I do a lot of pro bono work, and I have a network of over 100 foreign-trained engineers who are now, I’m sending them information about licensure. They’re on different steps towards licensure that they weren’t on before. And so that’s a way that they can show to a company, “Look, my skills are equivalent.”

Yury: That’s remarkable. Thank you.

Rich: Is there any final message that you’d like to share with owners or employers out there who haven’t had luck finding skilled employees but maybe haven’t crossed your path yet?

Stefanie: Well, what I’d say is, if you see a candidate with a different sounding name, instead of thinking of all the reasons why that person might not be a fit, look at it as an opportunity because that is the future workforce. It’s a growing component of the people that you’ll be seeing apply. So if you have 10 candidates and two of them are minorities or immigrants, think about bringing in at least one or two or really anyone who meets the job criteria, bring them in. Instead of having an internal dialogue that says, “Well, they probably won’t fit with their culture,” or, “They probably won’t speak English,” or, “They probably won’t have a work permit.” Instead, go with the objective criteria. Look at what’s on their resume. Say, “Wow, they’ve got a bachelor’s and a master’s. They have 15 years experience. They’ve done this. They’ve done that. Let’s see. Let me meet them.” And most employers will be quite thrilled with what they find if they take that risk.

Rich: Now, you’re focusing mostly on STEM type things, or are you … I just see an expression on your face. Are you branching out from that? Or for people who may not be in the STEM industries, is there still an opportunity here for them to tap into some of this well-educated immigrant workforce?

Stefanie: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t just do STEM. I started out just wanting to match engineers, but my first client was a finance client. My second one was a manufacturing then. So I have taken it as it comes. Right now, there’s so much demand from the engineering field and from environmental sciences that that’s what I spend most of my time on. But frankly, I have a large pool of IT tech and finance candidates. The one area that I don’t work in as much is foreign-trained doctors and nurses since I think it’s a difficult area to tackle and a little harder to match.

Yury: Stefanie, well, we call this a challenger question because it’s an opportunity to be very creative and think outside the box, but here it goes. What one thing would you change, if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Stefanie: If I could change anything, I would change that when an employer sees a resume with a foreign sounding name, that they look at it as an opportunity rather than as something frightening for them.

Rich: I think that’s something that, as an owner and maybe speaking for more than just myself, that we could all work on. This has been great. And we mentioned before that you have a website, and it’s at IntWork, I-N-T work, .co. Any other place where we can find you or your business online?

Stefanie: Absolutely, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on …

Rich: LinkedIn.

Stefanie: LinkedIn. Did I already say that?

Rich: No, you didn’t. But I know that you’ve got a great video there that people should totally check out.

Stefanie: Thank you. Yes. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s listening to this show who would like to ask questions. You’re welcome to message me on LinkedIn or to follow the IntWork LinkedIn page.

Yury: Perfect. And we’ll have all those links in the show notes.

Rich: Stefanie, thank you so much for coming by.