Somali Bantu Start U.S. Careers at NAPCO

The owner of San Antonio, Texas-based NAPCO Precast Limited has a long-standing commitment to hiring new Americans. As a former immigrant himself from Colombia, Jamie Iragorri knows first-hand what it feels like to be forced to flee one’s home country and start again in a new nation.

Embedded in his company’s values is Iragorri’s dedication to providing employment opportunities for new immigrants, particularly those from Latin America. In February 2005 Iragorri became captivated by the circumstances and conditions that brought the Somali Bantu refugees to San Antonio. According to NAPCO’s human resource manager, Sabrina Murillo, “The situation [with Somali Bantu] touched [Iragorri] unlike any other, and he knew right away that he wanted to extend a hand to those in need.”

Acting quickly on Iragorri’s interest and compassion, NAPCO hired three Somali Bantu refugees, who were matched to jobs based on their skills and interests. One is quickly mastering dry patching—a technique that improves the cosmetic appearance of cement, another is responsible for maintenance both in and outside of the facility, and the third started out as a rigger and was quickly promoted to driving a water truck.

This was the company’s first experience with hiring refugees, and Murillo could not be prouder. In her words, “They are some of the best employees we have ever had. They show initiative and they don’t wait around for someone to tell them what to do.” This is particularly attractive to their direct supervisors, who have recognized their strong work performance by successfully advocating for a second pay increase after only eight months on the job. As Murillo notes, “All three have gained a lot of trust from their peers and supervisors, and demonstrated that they can quickly learn to do almost any task.”

Business at NAPCO is growing, and the company looks forward to hiring more refugees in the future. From Murillo’s perspective hiring the Somali Bantu “was the best decision we could have made. They are not only hard workers but they have made the company better as a whole. They have helped all of us to realize how much we have in the U.S. and that we need to be grateful for even the little things.”

Refugees Reflect Hannaford’s Customers

An Ethiopian customer receives instruction on her new prescriptions from a fellow Amharic speaker at the pharmacy counter. A Sudanese produce specialist waves at a friend from the vegetable cart. The young Afghan cashier makes change for relatives at the checkout. At Hannaford grocery in Portland, Maine, associates increasingly reflect the city’s changing demographics. As Associate Relations Manager Shelly Williams explains, “Refugee associates represent the makeup of our community. It helps us build our business if our associates represent the community, because customers feel more comfortable.”

Although there are many reasons for Hannaford, or any company, to hire refugees, the bottom line is that the decision has to be good for the bottom line. Therefore it is important for refugee service providers to tailor their marketing strategies to businesses’ needs. Williams encourages employment specialists to be positive when approaching an employer. “Tell me what this person offers our company,” she says. Give us resources and solutions!”

In Hannaford’s case, refugee applicants are attractive because they represent Maine’s future workforce. “Hiring refugees is a responsible corporate move,” Williams explains. “Maine’s population is aging. In 10 or 20 years, the [refugees] will be holding the jobs and running the businesses.” Refugee employees at Hannaford are already advancing towards this goal according to City of Portland Employment Specialist Efrem Weldemichael. “Hannaford orients their new employees very well,” he acknowledges. “The pay is good and there is upward mobility with the company.” Former customer service associates are discovering new opportunities in the seafood, produce and pharmacy departments. Refugee youth who go off to college return to pursue opportunities in the company’s management training program. “I like to watch the growth in our employees,” notes Williams, adding that associates who stick with the company “can go as far as they choose.”

Refugees also introduce new learning opportunities for employers. For instance, when one refugee employee accidentally set off the fire alarm, Williams assumed full responsibility. “I took for granted that everyone knows what a fire alarm is; now I make sure to include it in each orientation.” Religious holidays, such as the celebration of Ramadan, are also easily accommodated with a short-term shift in schedules. Where language is a barrier, Williams recommends that providers be honest. “Be up-front. We can partner individuals with other native speakers or hire an interpreter if necessary, but we need to know in advance.”

Refugees offer tremendous benefits to Hannaford in return for employment. As Williams contends, “I think an employer who doesn’t use this population is losing out. You can’t go wrong. They are dependable, loyal, and they want to move up in the company. Refugees are truly part of the Hannaford family.”

Large Minnesota Employer Regularly Hires Refugees

Fairview Health Services is one of the largest employers in Minnesota and a strong supporter of refugee employment. With many refugees and political asylees employed at four of their hospitals in the greater Twin Cities area, the Minnesota Council of Churches has found an employer who truly provides newcomers a promising start in America.

According to Katie Thomas, match grant coordinator for Minnesota Council of Churches, “Fairview Health Services is committed to a diverse workforce and to giving refugees an opportunity to begin careers in the U.S.” Under the leadership of a senior human resources director of diversity, Fairview manages a diversity hiring program that has benefited refugees and other candidates looking to enter the healthcare field. Impressed with their investment in their employees, both Katie and her colleague Mike Zaslofsky work hard to nurture a lasting relationship with the company.

Fairview Health Service provides refugees with more than just an entry level job; they are also committed to offering their employees opportunities for advancement. Several refugees have been promoted while employed at the hospitals. One employee began as a Nutrition Services Aide and is now doing direct patient care as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant after completing a Fairview-sponsored training program. Another client who worked as a pharmacist in Sudan was hired as a pharmacy technician. The hospital hopes to assist him in the re-certification process. The salaries are good too. Newly hired refugees referred by Katie and Mike generally make between $10.41 – $15.00 per hour with benefits.

Supervisors at all four hospitals express enthusiasm about the caliber of employees they have found with newly arrived refugees. Materials Management Supervisor Tim Henry at Fairview Southdale Hospital comments, “[Refugees] are some of the most reliable employees I have. They show initiative, want to be here and any employer would benefit from hiring them because of the attributes they bring to the job. They have a top notch work ethic.”

Employment Representative Jean Shepherd at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, agrees. “I like working with the refugees that are referred from Minnesota Council of Churches because they are eager to be of service to our patients. They have a very positive attitude and they are eager to learn. Mike and Katie send [candidates]who have the skills, as well as the legal documents. Working together is what it’s all about!”

In addition, Steve Kroeker, Director of Nutrition Services at University of Minnesota Medical Center has said, “They’re hard working people who’ve adapted well in our department. They respect others and do great work.”

Refugees Advance at Cardone Industries

Timothy Tran, a former refugee from Vietnam, resettled in Lancaster, Pa., when he was 21. His first job in the United States was as industrial chaplain with Cardone Industries in Philadelphia, a unique position with a company that strives to create a small-family feel among its 4,200 employees. Fifteen years later, Tran is still with Cardone, where he works as staffing coordinator, welcoming other refugees to the company that welcomed him.

Since 1970 when Cardone began remanufacturing its first automotive part—at that time a windshield wiper—the company has hired as many as 800 former refugees representing 19 different nationalities. Many employees have stayed with the company several years, working their way up the corporate ladder. “The only skill you need to get a job with us is to have a good attitude. We teach you the rest,” Tran points out. One of the company’s corporate objectives is “Help people develop,” and many refugees have benefited from this goal.

Tran is just one example of an employee who has advanced within the company. A Haitian immigrant who started in the shipping department returned to the company as a benefits specialist after completing college. Another woman, originally from Cambodia, began in the packaging department and was eventually promoted to hiring manager for human resources. In her new position, she uses her personal experience to encourage newly arrived refugees.

Cardone Industries works with all four of the local voluntary agencies to hire refugees: Catholic Social Services, LIRS affiliate Lutheran Children and Family Services (LCFS), Nationality Service Center and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. As Janet Panning, resettlement director for LCFS, recognizes, “Cardone is not only a leader in their industry, but is also a leader in their commitment to their employees. Their heart for their employees, including refugees and asylees, goes far beyond traditional employer support.” Tran agrees, “We not only give jobs, we care for the whole person.”

Cardone Industries is a remanufacturer of auto parts and a three-time winner of the Automotive Service Industries Remanufacturer of the Year Award. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company also has sites in Los Angeles, Canada and Belgium.

C&S Wholesale Grocers

Employers hear about the benefits of hiring refugees through a variety of sources: A cold call from a job developer. A speaker at a rotary meeting. A friend at church. C&S Wholesale Grocers’ introduction to the country’s refugee labor pool stemmed from a simple conversation shared during a vacation cruise.

In 2005 C&S Human Resources Recruiting Supervisor Dana Riccioni received an enthusiastic e-mail from another human resources professional in the company about a market for potential new employees. In the e-mail, Riccioni’s associate shared how she had learned about the U.S. refugee resettlement program from a fellow passenger—a Church World Service employee—while on a cruise. The conversation had prompted her to research the local resettlement agencies near C&S sites and forward their contact information to C&S staff recruiters. Taking her colleague’s tip, Riccioni, who is based in Trenton, called Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSMNJ), and she discovered a pool of ambitious workers.

While LSMNJ was eager to match qualified candidates with the company’s openings, transportation was an initial barrier. The C&S locations are not accessible by public transportation. To solve this problem, the company decided to procure two vans from another C&S site, and created two new positions for drivers. For a reasonable $25 weekly fee, former refugee employees can ride to work in one of the vans. One of the drivers, Alpha Fofana, is a former refugee from Ivory Coast. Resettled in 2003 by the International Institute of New Jersey, Fofana commends the company for the opportunities they provide, “At this company everyone is so kind and willing to help you,” he says gratefully. “There are many opportunities to grow with the company. C&S is a perfect image of America because if you want to work, they help you. If you are serious about your future, you will succeed here.”

Riccioni agrees with Fofana. C&S is committed to providing advancement opportunities and promoting from within. Many employees who start in low-skill positions and move on to the more advanced positions including the company’s supervisor training program. Riccioni sees refugee workers as perfect candidates for C&S’s job upgrade opportunities. She notes, “[Refugees] come to the U.S. to work and we have the jobs to offer.”

Job Developer Vesna Smith is grateful that C&S has gone to such lengths to learn about LSMNJ’s program and hire the agency’s clients. In her words, “We really appreciate the efforts and patience of C&S. Their staff has been extremely helpful in getting our clients self-sufficient within 90 days of their arrival.” In less than a year, LSMNJ has placed more than 20 refugees at the company’s six locations in metropolitan New Jersey. C & S has also hired over fifty refugees throughout the New England area in partnership with Lutheran Social Services of West Springfield. With any luck, the company will have similar success in Staten Island, New York where another Lutheran Social Services affiliate is located.

CabinetCraft Embraces Refugees

Bill Adams was not particularly enthusiastic about hiring refugees at Cabinetcraft, a subsidiary of John Wieland Homes, when the company opened a new production plant in North Carolina in 1999. “I don’t hide the fact that I am an old country boy from the South,” Adams admits freely from his office in Charlotte, noting that he was 15 before he first met a person who wasn’t from North Carolina. “You can guess my reaction to the idea of working with people who don’t speak English. I fought it kicking and screaming the whole way.”

Nevertheless, within just six weeks of hiring his first group of refugee employees in 1999, Adams discovered a tremendous source of industrious, skilled and dedicated workers. “They were even better than [the employees] we typically found at a temporary employment agency,” he recalls. “They walk away from a lot to be in the United States, and give everything they can in their jobs. This says a lot about their muster.”

Six years later Cabinetcraft’s workforce of 50 in Charlotte includes 36 former refugees, some of whom are rapidly approaching the top of the pay scale—$17–18 an hour. Many were forced to give up professional careers as engineers, teachers and mechanics when they fled their home countries. One employee from Liberia has a master’s degree in anthropology and recently won an award in a North Carolina poetry contest.

As Cabinetcraft continues to hire new staff many of its refugee employees have stayed at the plant since its beginning. One reason is that the company offers employees career advancement opportunities. This is attractive to Linda Campbell, an employment specialist at Catholic Social Services, who has referred clients to Adams since the plant opened. “The company invests in teaching people skills they can carry with them forever. If they are teachable, they can go anywhere [in the company].” Currently, all six floor supervisors are former refugees.

Commenting on Cabinetcraft’s recruitment strategies, Adams says that he rarely looks beyond Catholic Social Services because he knows that good employees are just a phone call away. His attitude towards refugees has changed in a relatively short time. He considers many of his employees close friends, and he has a lot of respect for them. “Like most Americans, they want to better themselves and provide for their families. Now I wouldn’t let anyone take away our [refugee] employees. They are the best workers.”

Group Workshops Improve Refugee Employment Outcomes

Group workshops are an effective way to review information provided to a family post resettlement and to provide employment programming.  Several positive aspects can be achieved if the right atmosphere is developed.  First, participants can learn from one another as well as from the facilitator or caseworker leading the group.  Second, the organization can reinforce key concepts multiple times with several participants at once, thus increasing their likelihood of  understanding.  Third, major issues or concerns will be discovered quickly and addressed..

JFCS PittsburghIn addition, group workshops are a familiar format to most refugees, since they are used in the refugee camps to instruct refugee families before their arrival.  They can be used again once the families are here  to reinforce concepts for Cultural Orientation, Acculturation, and Job Readiness or Employment Programs.  The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) has posted resources for organizations that work with refugees, so curriculum is already available and simply needs to be tailored to a specific city and or local region.

Three distinct approaches to job readiness group workshops are used in Pittsburgh:

  1. Weekly Orientation to the Workplace, hosted by Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh (JF&CS)
  2. English Language Training by Northern Area Multi-Service Center (NAMS)
  3. The Refugee Career Mentoring Program (RCMP); a collaborative effort with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services that focuses on assisting refugees with advanced degrees and professional backgrounds.

JF&CS provides a weekly workshop for participants, reviewing topics most critical to job acquisition and retention.  Subjects covered include the job placement process, completing an application, interview skills, hygiene, safety at the workplace, and the proper way to call in sick and/or terminate employment.  All workshops are interpreted and PowerPoint presentations are translated into the primary language of the major population group to ensure understanding.

NAMS partnered with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Adult ESL School to provide Basic ESL and job readiness preparation on-site. The Job Readiness Program follows a set curriculum and was taught from an ESL/Adult Education framework. Each class is devoted to a special topic related to job readiness, with basic ‘soft skills’ such as time and attendance, embedded in the curriculum.

RCMP focuses on providing support to refugees with advanced degrees, and they work in collaboration with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Three Rivers Workforce Development Board, Vibrant Pittsburgh, ESL providers, and the refugee resettlement agencies in Pittsburgh.

RCMP links a refugee with a mentor in his/her field. Workshops focus on professional resume writing, networking, and job search that is specific to specific areas of professional expertise. This program provides clients a better understanding of the processes required to gain employment in their field. It also gives professionals in the Pittsburgh area an opportunity to give back to their community and to learn more about the refugee community.

Success Story contributed by Dawn Brubaker, Refugee Employment Coordinator, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh and Elizabeth Ringler, MPIA, Refugee Social Services, Job Developer, Northern Area Multi-Service Center

For more information on this promising practice, contact Elizabeth Ringler: elizabeth.ringler@namsc.com

Seasonal Job Lead

Seasonal Bell Ringer Jobs Build Understanding of Customer Service and US Culture of Giving

Guest Blog Contribution from Higher Peer Expert, Lorel Donaghey, Caritas of Austin

Now is the time that Salvation Army missions across the country begin to take applications for season bell ringer positions, which are full time from Thanksgiving weekend until December 24.  In Austin, we placed 6 refugees as bell ringers last year and hope to place more this year.  The Salvation Army liked the chance to show people that giving is not just a Christian tradition and were happy to demonstrate greater cultural diversity.  For our clients, it offered a resume builder, $8/hour and a great learning experience.  Everyone who grew up in the US knows about Salvation Army Bell Ringers, but the concept is completely foreign to refugees.

Clients needed to be able to say basic greetings in English, keep close track of their kettle at all times, be reliable and be willing to engage people to encourage them to give.  Although they moved to different sites frequently, everyone left and returned to a central site and transportation was provided.  The purpose was to safeguard collections, but it made it much easier for our clients, as well.  We provided quite a lot of interpretation during training and during the first week or so of work and on-going to help things work well.  It was really worth it.  One of our clients won the top collections award one week and all of them got positive feedback from the store managers where they were stationed.  You can read more about the experience in the attached article that we placed in local news media last year.

 

Refugees Ring in the Holiday Spirit

December 28, 2011

Hundreds of documented refugees come to Caritas of Austin each year fleeing religious and political persecution. For many, the journey to a new life in the United States is the first time leaving the small villages and rural environments where they lived. Caritas helps refugees acclimate to their new home, learn new skills and find employment.

For 10 documented refugees who found employment as bell ringers for the Salvation Army, this year marked their first holiday season in the United States.

The bell ringers are a common holiday tradition seen each year positioned in front of stores and along streets we pass daily. The custom of placing loose change into a bright red kettle is second nature for many. However, for refugees who have never experienced Christmas in the United States, this concept is brand new.

The opportunity to work as bell ringers would provide much needed employment to support their families while learning some of our holiday traditions.

Before beginning their jobs at local bell ringing stations, Caritas case managers and staff from Salvation Army spent time training refugees. They learned the basic principles of the position, including how to say, “welcome,” “thank you,” and “Merry Christmas.”

Aden, a refugee from Somalia, speaks very little English and had no previous exposure to western work and culture. Before coming to the United States, he had only been on a bus twice and was never far from his village.

Aden was stationed at Macy’s at Barton Creek Mall. It was a challenge to help him navigate the store and even find a restroom. But he did it. When his case manager visited him at work, Aden grinned, shook his kettle and said in an amazed voice, “Money is coming. Bell is ringing and they are giving!”

Basra, another refugee from Somalia, arrived for her first day and when Salvation Army Lt. Frankie Zuniga came to check on her, she was dancing, ringing the bell and getting people engaged to donate. Zuniga was amazed as she helped reassure him that Caritas clients can do the job and do it successfully!

Working as bell ringers has helped Caritas clients learn how to engage customers and follow basic work expectations. After only two days of work, they were all clearly feeling more confident about their English and ability to do a valuable job. They have also learned about charitable giving and nonprofit traditions. They were skeptical at first that people would really give, but now they are seeing how it works.

It takes a team of volunteers, interns, staff and translators to help them learn and keep the jobs. The Salvation Army staff has also been very supportive. After one day, they knew that refugees could contribute as valued employees. As the holidays come to an end, the refugees can apply their valuable experience to future positions.

 

 


New ORR Technical Assistance Award

Higher was awarded a new 3-year technical assistance grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the beginning of October.   Since that time, we have been working hard to define our work plan by talking to local service providers and other key stakeholders in refugee employment.

Higher’s technical assistance for the coming year includes a stronger focus on community engagement.  This is right in line with our new approach and we are pleased to be able to work with ORR to use employment as a critical community engagement strategy.

Our three main priorities in the coming year include:

1) Develop a jobs database by developing national relationships with companies who are interested in hiring refugees

2) Pilot an employment mentoring initiative to deepen social networks for job seekers from a refugee background

3) Create online training for both refugees and service providers that build skills to be successful in the workplace, as a job seeker and job developer, respectively.

Want to be more involved in Higher’s efforts? Here are two ways you can join now!

1) Become a Peer Expert.  Higher’s peer experts regularly offer guidance on individual technical assistance needs and also are called upon to help shape Higher’s business development strategy.  Send your resume to Higher along with a brief introduction about your background in refugee employment.

2) Contribute to Higher’s Blog and Website.  We are looking for guest contributions from service providers, employers and refugees themselves about all things related to refugee employment.  Share a success story, a lesson learned, a new tool or useful resource.  Contact Higher with your contributions.

As always, let Higher know how we can help you.  We are your consultants and look forward to working together in the year ahead so that more refugees work.

Diversity and the Value Add to Employers

Are your agencies promoting the strengths of diversity in the workplace? Are the employers you work with a set of values and principles that recognize diversity? Below are some value adds that refugees bring to the workplace and you can promote to employers.

Customer Focus – matching internal employee diversity to population diversity can provide performance benefits which enhance awareness of consumer needs.

Business Process – recruiting diverse talent will help inject new ideas and challenge the organizational mindsets and ways of doing things that can hinder change and organizational process.

Innovation – the flexibility, creativity, and ability to innovate are enhanced by the existence of dissimilar mindsets. Constructive conflict supports “out of the box” thinking.

Learning – employers have more choice from a greater skills base, improved employee satisfaction, and reduced internal disputes, greater workplace harmony, improved retention, and more effective and fairer promotion of talent. Knowledge is retained in the business and shared more effectively.

When working with a new employer, it is wise to consider the following:

Does the employer…. (Examine the company’s mission and value statements)

  • Have a set of values and principles that recognize diversity;
  • Demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally and value diversity;
  • Conduct self-assessment to ensure sensitivity to cultural characteristics;
  • Commit to manage the “dynamics of difference;”
  • Learn about and incorporate cultural knowledge into their practices, and
  • Adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.

If the answer is yes, then the company will most likely be a good match for your clients.

 

Cheers,

Jonathan Lucus,

Director of Higher