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.”