The website of Cardinal Glass Industries states their mission is to provide the highest quality glass products for residential windows. With over 6,000 employees nationwide, they are able to create guaranteed products and ship them around the world. While Cardinal is shipping their products to different countries, the hands that work on the product back in the factory are from other countries.

The Fargo Cardinal location is known for not only its product, but for its reputation for hiring New Americans.

When Jenni Lubbers, director of employee services at Cardinal, took on her role in 2002, a select group of case managers from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota had experienced success sending Cardinal skilled and educated refugees to join its workforce. But LSS isn’t the only organization that Lubbers works with today; the Skills and Technology Center and the Adult Learning Center, both in Fargo, work together with Cardinal to make it possible to hire qualified New Americans.

A bulletin board demonstrates a handful of students that have graduated from the Skills Development Project. Photo by Aubrie Odegaard.

A bulletin board demonstrates a handful of students that have graduated from the Skills Development Project. Photo by Aubrie Odegaard.

The Skills and Technology Center and the Adult Learning Center help New Americans sharpen their skills and give them experience in manufacturing. The program at the Skills and Technology Center that specifically focuses on helping New Americans is the Skills Development Project. Janie Hulett, the director of the program, built it up from scratch. After she retired from another career a peer from Job Service North Dakota, who knew the compassion

Hulett had for working with people, presented her with an idea.

“They said ‘we have a challenge for you,’” Hulett said. “There are a lot of New Americans in the community that are all laid off from a beef company…They don’t have the skills necessary to fill openings in manufacturing.”

From there, Hulett took hold of the challenge full-force. She contacted all the manufacturing companies in Fargo-Moorhead and asked what they want to see from people who apply to work for their company.

“As far as skill sets I don’t want to just get someone trained for the entry level,” Hulett said. “I feel very strongly about opportunities for them to be at a higher level.”

CHANGES IN DEMOGRAPHICS PROMPT MORE TRAINING

The change in the demographics of refugees resettling in Fargo-Moorhead has required new workers to have training before they can be employed. Lubbers said when she started at Cardinal they were getting New Americans immigrating from European countries, predominately Bosnia and Romania. Those New Americans had more transferable trade experience because they were coming from countries that were already somewhat industrialized. This meant they would need little help sharpening their skills.

Now Lubbers is seeing a shift in origin for New Americans. Instead of Eastern European countries, more are coming from Africa. With this shift, Lubbers has seen a decline in transferable skills.

“Those employees struggle more because they are not coming from countries that are industrialized,” Lubbers said. “When you talk with them about their history and you ask, ‘what have you been doing the last three to five years in your country before immigrating here?’ The answer is ‘I’ve been waiting in a refugee camp.’”

The decline in experience has been proven a problem for Lubbers. Because of the waiting period in refugee camps, the New Americans have little schooling—maybe some English—and are coming less and less prepared to work.

“Depending on the country and the point in their immigration the answer to what they’ve been doing is, ‘I’ve been a shop keeper,’” Lubbers said. “If you’ve ever been to a country like any of the countries within Africa, a shop keeper is really nothing more than ‘I have a bunch of stuff to sell and I’m going to lay it out on a blanket in the street.’”

Programs like the Skills Development Project make employing New American workers a little easier. They try to help bridge the gap between the wait in the refugee camp and being employed in the United States.

According to Hulett, before the New Americans start the program, she learns more about their families, backgrounds and transportation needs. This way, she can really get to know her students and help them the best she can. New Americans must also go through about five hours of testing on their English and math skills.

If their scores are high enough, the New Americans can start in the higher level Manufacturing Industry class. If their scores are too low they start out in a pre-class, the Work Place Language/Math class that emphasizes workplace vocabulary, safety, math and critical thinking skills. Some of the New Americans have been away from a work environment for so long that a refresher course is just what they need to get them to the next step.

The pre-class proves helpful.

After they’ve become more accustomed to the logistics of a workplace and received high enough scores, the students can move on to Manufacturing Industry. There the students focus on a variety of skill work including forklift operation, power tools, hand tools, blue print reading, safety and leadership skills.

“They are trying to prepare people with skills that need to be developed in order to enter the work force,” Lubbers said. “That seems to be helpful and I really like taking a look at folks that graduate from that program because they’ve already shown effort and commitment to improving their skill set and their employment situation.”

STUDENTS HAVE A LOT ON THEIR PLATES

The students who graduate from the Skills Development Project have gone through at least 81 hours of intensive training and learning. They are scheduled to attend four and a half hours a day, every day of the week, for four weeks to graduate. On top of that, they are working full-time jobs to keep their households afloat.

When New Americans arrive in the United States, LSS needs to get them through all the required steps and into employment within a short period of time.

“They have to be earning an income to support themselves because the assistance runs out” after a few months, Hulett said.

According to Hulett, because the students enrolled in the class are working full time, the class times can vary. Hulett tries to schedule the class at a time that will work with a majority of the students’ schedules. Almost all of the teachers who teach for the Skills Development Project are retired teachers,  which makes the flexibility of the class possible.

Still, there are times when students have a lot on their plates. Hulett arranges retired mentors for students who may begin to fall behind in the class for that very purpose.

“As soon as someone is involved in the training and they’re not doing their homework or you can tell from their daily quizzes or their chapter tests they aren’t doing well, then they are doing one-on-one,” Hulett said.

At the end of the four weeks, if the students have high enough scores, they get a certificate saying that they have graduated the program. From there Hulett calls the employers that she reached out to in the beginning and asks them if they are interested in coming in and interviewing the recent graduates for possible employment.

Hulett said she feels strongly that the students and employers first connect at the Skills and Technology Center. “That person is in their own environment here, their own comfort level and it also gives those employers the opportunity to come in,” she said. “They invested a lot of time with me in helping identify the skill sets needed and so that partnership is a win-win.”

The program has become more than just a couple of classes to help New Americans. Hulett tells of a gentleman who had seen an article in the newspaper about the program. He was a retired architect who volunteered to help teach. He even spoke at one of the graduation ceremonies. “He was basically saying, ‘I’ve been a part of several classes now and I get so much out of this because my knowledge can benefit you,” Hulett said. “And he said ‘please remember that someday when you are old and can help somebody else out.’”

The Skills Development Project is something Hulett has become proud of over the years.

“The thing that is so rewarding in working with New Americans is they come here and it’s like America is the world of opportunity,” Hulett said. “What they tell after they’ve been a part of this is ‘I found family…you cared about me and the employers that you placed me with treated me like family.’”

Through Hulett, retired teachers, mentors and grant money, the Skills Development Program has graduated about 900 students, which in turn leads to more employment opportunities with better wages and benefits.

CREATING A STRONGER WORKFORCE

Without the help of organizations like Skills Development Program and the Adult Learning Center to better increase the skills of the New Americans, Cardinal may not have its proud 6,000 employees nationwide.

“It’s a relationship that I think is in your hire practices that you develop with many organizations throughout the community,” Lubbers said. “You know that it is going to make you a stronger work force.”

Cardinal looks at all potential employees similarly, no matter the skin color.

“Where they come from is pretty irrelevant once they get in the door,” Lubbers said. “It’s our job to hire the most skilled and qualified individual that we have at the time of application.”

Every potential employee with Cardinal goes through a screening process. After the screening, the employee is hired and placed into a certain section on the assembly line. Once the employees know what their tasks are, they are paired with master trainers and taught how to do their jobs. Here is where having New Americans on staff can get a little tricky—the language barrier.

It’s hard to train new employees in general, but throw in the fact that a handful of the new employees could potential speak six or seven different languages between all of them and it becomes apparent why training is difficult.

Communication between the New Americans and their new employers tends to be a challenge when the New Americans’ vocabulary is not quite on the same page as their employers.

“Individuals didn’t know the difference between wrist and ankle,” Hulett said. “…I was like whoa, when we are talking manufacturing and a lot of injuries this is a problem.”

It’s not that the individuals don’t know what items are, they just don’t know the words for them in English. So going through the basics is essential for some, especially when it comes to understanding how the work force operates in the United States.

“It is difficult for them, sometimes, to understand that no really does mean no,” Lubbers said. “That no amount of begging, pleading, offering of goats, etc., will get your buddy or best friend or your brother a job…They are willing to do and say whatever it takes to get someone else employment within our company.”

According to Lubbers, their company has found some successful ways to work around this barrier.

When the training process begins, they try to pair new employees with master trainers who speak the same language as those employees so they can better learn the tasks.

Lubbers mentioned that they don’t always have someone who speaks a similar language as the New Americans, so they turn to a 24/7 translating service that they phone when a problem arises. Normally when this happens, Lubbers, the employee and the supervisor put the phone on speaker and have a conversation, relying on the translator to get the proper information to the New Americans.

For any company that hires New Americans there is going to be a bump in the road somewhere down the line. For Lubbers, it’s worth it.

“Anytime you have input and support and involvement and variety in different individuals I think it makes you stronger as a company,” Lubbers said. “Certainly we wouldn’t be the fantastic company that we are today if we didn’t have insight and buy-in from people from those different cultures.”

 

This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported  on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.

Aubrie Odegaard

is planning to graduate May of 2017 from Concordia College working toward a double major in Communication Studies and Multimedia Journalism.

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