Billboard Bags: Employer, Vocational Training Program and Social Enterprise

Billboard Bags is an innovative start-up social enterprise that up-cycles outdoor billboards into super cute bags that come in all shapes and sizes.  100% of their part-time employees are refugee women, who graduate from a year-long training program with stronger English, marketable hard and soft job skills and basic household financial management. Higher is entering the first 50 people to like us on Facebook in a drawing to win one of these great bags, each signed by the refugee woman who made it.  You can, too by clicking here!

bag at crabHow They Got Started

The team behind Billboard Bags in Atlanta, GA became increasingly aware of refugees’ struggle to make ends meet in their neighborhood.  “In our very own backyard, we had 3,500 refugees a year being resettled. They quickly became a part of our lives, and we knew there might be a way we could work together”, says Gisele Nelson, Execution Specialist for parent organization, Plywood People.

For a year and a half, they tested the idea of creating bags from old billboards given by a supporter glad to provide the raw material. (Blank billboards are covered with heavy printed banner material.)  They had a shed full of billboards before they knew what they were going to do with them.  In 2011, before any of the details had been solidified, an order of 5,000 bags propelled the project into high gear.

“We didn’t have a well thought out business plan or even a sewing machine”, Nelson explains.  What they did have was billboards, people to do the work, and orders to fill.  12 Burmese women and 12 sewing machines later, the first order was underway.  The learning curve was pretty sharp in the beginning.  According to Nelson, “the women we hired didn’t know how to sew.  We didn’t even know how to sew!” It took the team four months to complete 5,000 bags.

How it Looks Today

After just two years, Billboard Bags has sold over 50,000 up-cycled billboard products and has graduated 25 women from their training program.  The project has been sustainable through bag sales since the beginning and they hope to double in size by next summer.

bag woman sewing machine smallerThey currently hire 6 women, including an Iraqi manager.  They learned that new hires should be from different backgrounds, so that English is the common language that everyone can use to communicate.   They have also learned to hire in pairs (from similar backgrounds and language groups).  Each woman works 30 hours a week from 8am- 2pm each day, which is the schedule that works best for the employee trainees.

 

Billboard Bags is the first of four social enterprises making cool products and employing refugees that Higher will feature with a success story and product promotion for our readers in the coming months.  Like us on Facebook or check out our website to learn more and maybe get some great swag! 

Friday Feature: War Witch (2013)

War Witch Movie Poster 1Mental and emotional health barriers are among the most difficult to address.  Employment may not address them directly, but they have many impacts on our work.  Close collaboration with resettlement case managers can help you identify work environments that might recreate trauma, alert you to the need for a longer pre-employment period or flexible work schedules to accommodate medical appointments.

War Witch is an award-winning film that portrays some of the traumatic experiences our clients struggle to overcome, through the eyes of an African child soldier and her family.  Although it portrays war in an anonymous Sub-Saharan African country, it was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which will help you envision the landscape an increasing number of our clients come from.

Although the movie isn’t for the faint hearted (or for family viewing), joyful Afro pop music and belief in the power of mysticism help sustain hope in the movie heroine – and in many of our clients.  They’ll also make you want to dance.  You can easily check out vibrant Congolese music.  Google Papa Wemba for a classic or check out BeatMakingLab in Goma, Congo from PBS Digital Studios.

(Every Friday we highlight one entertainment option related to our clients or some aspect of our work to help you celebrate the weekend and possibly recommend to employers and other community supporters in the following week.)

High Retention Rates make Refugee Employees a Marketable Asset

Employee turnover is expensive.  Refugees tend to stay in the same job longer than others in the US workforce. Volag USCRI cites 96% retention rates (from 2012 national Matching Grant data) in a great package of materials they have provided to all of the resettlement agencies in their network.  After long journeys to safety or long stays in refugee camps or third countries where they weren’t allowed to work, refugees often crave job stability.  All of the employment services we provide contribute to those retention rates.

Many studies estimate the cost of losing an employee from 20% to as much as double their annual salary.  As the economy continues to improve and unemployment rates drop, companies are paying even more attention to employee retention strategies.   You can read more in depth coverage about that – and about the cost of employee turnover in a recent LinkedIn post we added to Higher’s customized news magazine on Flip Book.

Tara Mulder, LIRS Director of Marketing and Communication, says that statistics are always a strong selling point in any marketing communication.  Here are three practical tips for using high retention rate statistics in your own job development and communication strategies:

  1. Compile data you already track in monthly reports to generate your own statistic.  You might be able to use 90 day job retention and the total number of employment clients served compiled over a calendar year.
  2. Use that percentage in your sales pitch when you’re reaching out to new employers.  (if you also track the employer name, you could look at specific industries, which might give you a better statistic to use when targeting employers in that field.)
  3. Turn the data into a pie chart to add visual interest when bragging about your success rate on your website or in social media.  Also use it in an Employment Brochure.

Second Group of Mentors and Refugees Starts to Work in Lancaster, PA

Lancaster Mentoring Collage resize

Higher is partnering with Lutheran Refugee Service in Lancaster, PA in an exciting pilot project that will  help a growing number of refugees pursue their career goals, find a job upgrade and expand their community networks.  These pictures are from last week’s second cohort kick-off and orientation that started an additional seven partnerships off to a great start.  Read more about this innovative partnership in a recent Lancaster Online article, which motivated all seven of the mentors in the second group to get involved.

Khem Subedi, a Bhutanese refugee who was featured in the article, is now joined by his wife Pramila (in the beautiful green sari in the collage).  Follow the progress of Khem, Pramila, their mentors and the rest of the group by subscribing to Higher’s blog.   We’ll also be sharing what we learn so that others can help refugees deepen their community connections and professional success through mentoring.

Great Job Opportunity in a Great City and Agency

Higher is considering how we can help advertise refugee employment job opportunities.  Career growth in this field might mean moving to another agency or city.  For agencies, being able to cast a wider net for talent and experience can be costly.  Helping agencies and the refugee employment sector attract and retain people with skills, passion and experience is central to our mission.  We’ll be exploring how best to do that.  Feel free to tell us what you think about this or give us suggestions about other things we can do related to career development for refugee employment professionals.

For now, here’s a link to an exciting position open now – Employment Program Manager at Caritas of Austin, TX.  The position manages 10 people and oversees employment services to approximately 1,000 (primarily refugee) clients a year in the largest non-profit social service agency in the County.

 

Research Study Measures Economic Benefits of Job Upgrades Into Professional Career Tracks

It’s often difficult to help refugees with job upgrades or professional recertification, but the added income for refugees and contribution to the US economy make a  significant difference.  Skilled immigrants increased their average annualized salary by 121% (from an average of $16.967 to $37,490) when they begin working in a better job in their field.  A research study released by Upwardly Global in April of this year, documents and quantifies the economic benefits of employment assistance to help skilled immigrants secure job upgrades related to the careers in which they offer skills and experience.    Look for more resources and examples of job upgrade strategies and successes in professional recertification in the coming months at http://higheradvantage.org.

 

 

Low English Proficiency (LEP) Demographics

LEP US Map

Statistical analysis from the Migration Policy Institute highlights the increasing number of LEP residents in the US, especially in metropolitan areas and in California, Texas and New York.  Higher numbers of LEP men work in construction and extraction and LEP women in service and personal care.  How is the picture similar or different for your refugee clients?   Share your success stories, resources or models on our website http://higheradvantage.org.

Compensation Comparison for Three Attainable Jobs

worker pay

Hourly wage, number of hours per week and access to benefits are all important considerations for our clients.  For the whole article highlighting the benefits to employers of paying a living wage, go to http://money.cnn.com/2013/08/06/news/economy/costco-fast-food-strikes/index.htm.

NYTimes Article Provides Valuable Examples and Resource Leads for Physician Clients

A recent New York Times article outlines the barriers refugee and other immigrant physicians face to continue their practice in the US.  Providing a copy of this article to your physician clients will reinforce what you’re telling them, give them useful examples of other physicians in the US and point to two great resources you can help them find:  The Welcome Back Initiative and Upwardly Global.

Immigrant Professional Recertification Research

A new research study from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) outlines the barriers and identifies possible solutions to the issue of skilled refugee professional recertification.  It is very much in line with our experiences as service providers helping refugee clients understand and address barriers they may face, learn about recertification options and seek pathways to reentering their profession and gaining US work experience, networks and US licensure.

You can find a link to the entire report in our Research and Reports section or by visiting the MPI website.