MOORHEAD — Refugees and immigrants may need help working through language or cultural issues, but given a chance, they can be valuable workers, experts shared at the “Our Refugee Workforce” roundtable held Tuesday, April 6, at the Courtyard by Marriott.
Mike Arntson, plant manager for Cardinal Glass Industries, told the in-person and virtual attendees at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce “Eggs and Issues” event that everyone has issues. Yet they can all be worked through if they are cast not as problems but as challenges to be solved.
Cardinal IG has workers from 33 countries who were born on five continents, he said.
For some, being unable to write in English is an initial challenge in filling out a job application.
“Instead of choosing to cast away the challenge, we have to embrace the challenge, because underneath those challenges is an awesome teammate,” Arntson said.
The company’s first teammate of the year, Robert Kargbo, came from Sierra Leone, arriving in Fargo-Moorhead with a degree in chemical engineering.
Arntson hired Kargbo to cut glass even though he was far overqualified for the job.
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“He just needed an opportunity to go to NDSU (North Dakota State University) and shore up his qualifications and accreditation to work as a chemical engineer here and cure cancer,” Arntson said. “Guess what he's doing today? He’s curing cancer, using genetic modification. Who am I to say that he is not qualified to work at our plant?”
Laetitia Mizero Hellerud, a former Lutheran Social Services refugee coordinator for North Dakota, is a board member for the New American Consortium for wellness and empowerment.
Hellerud said if employers work through cultural and religious differences they can have valuable employees.
She said an apt analogy might be farming.
“Both the soil and seed have to be in optimal conditions for the outcome to be maximal,” she said.
A 2018 study prepared by North Dakota Legislative Council said New Americans in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo area paid $13.8 million in state and local taxes in 2014 and contributed $542.8 million to the metro’s gross domestic product, making them significant contributors to the local economy.
At the start of the year, LSS announced it had insurmountable financial issues and could no longer support many of its programs, including the refugee resettlement services.
Chris Jones, executive director of North Dakota Department of Human Services, said it was both “a blessing and a curse that (the LSS announcement) occurred during the legislative session.”
Jones said the process of setting up a temporary refugee resettlement system has been transparent, and things that might have taken six months to do have been done in as little as six weeks.
Anisa Hajimumin is the assistant commissioner for immigrant and refugee affairs for Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Hajimumin said language barriers can make it tough for refugees and immigrants to enter the workforce. Community engagement and outreach are also sometimes needed.
But a Wilder Foundation study said not focusing on those issues has a cost, too.
In Minnesota, the economy is losing $5.1 billion in revenue by not utilizing refugee and immigrant talent, Hajimumin said.
Adam Broers, a senior executive for human resources and safety for Bethany Retirement Living, said his company relies heavily on refugees and immigrants. The firm’s two Fargo locations have about 800 employees, about 300 of them are refugees or immigrants.
“It’s been hugely successful for us,” Broers said.
“They have been some of our best employees," he said. “We’re fortunate to be able to fill those positions in health care ... and what they give back to Bethany and the community is huge.”