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Labor Solution: Tips for Working with Refugee Labor
Labor Shortfall: James Ruder of L&R Pallet explains how refugee workers helped change his business for the better and what tips you need to know to utilize refugee workers in your area.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 12/1/2016
James Ruder of L&R Pallet explains how refugee workers helped change his business for the better and what tips you need to know to utilize refugee workers in your area.
Facing a labor crisis which was limiting the growth potential in his business, James Ruder, president of L&R Pallet in Denver, Colorado turned to an unlikely group of people to solve his problem. He hired seven refugees from Burma in the hopes of changing how he looked for labor. And it worked.
Today, the company employs 82 foreign refugees, and they have stabilized the workforce at L&R Pallet. But the process was far from easy. Ruder called his refugee program the toughest things he has ever done in business. You can read a detailed story about his personal journey on page 28 in the October 2016 issue of Pallet Enterprise. This article covers the practical tips that Ruder learned when starting his refugee program. These guidelines can help you navigate the process if you decide to make refugees a key source of labor in the future.
One of the biggest mistakes that Ruder sees when hiring refugees is company owners treating them like just any other employee. But they are not. Refugees, particularly, when they first enter the country have lots of doctors’ visits, government-mandated meetings and screenings, and other things that will drag them away from work. Ruder responded that you have to be flexible in your employee scheduling to handle those challenges. And that is why he suggests hiring refugees who have been in this country a year or two. Also, they are less likely to leave because they know that working in the pallet sector is not a bad job.
Ruder remembered, “I was very successful with the first seven. They had been here a few years. They were very productive right out of the gate. We thought they were all going to be that productive.” But some of the others that came didn’t work out as well. From language barriers to safety problems to employees leaving, it took a while to get the company to where it is now.
Some companies think they can hire a few refugees and just drop them in anywhere, but that is a mistake according to Ruder. He explained, “You can’t just hire one or two refugees. You need to hire enough to create a team and a culture.”
Refugees come with language barriers and maybe even cultural differences and a lack of proficiency with machinery. When L&R Pallet first started with refugees only one of the first seven spoke English. Ruder added, “You can’t split these guys up into your normal population at first and expect them to succeed.”
L&R Pallet put them together on the same team so that they can communicate and look out for each other. It worked because six of the seven first employees are still with the company.
Ruder warned, “The smartest thing that I can recommend is to go slow. We were so successful with the first seven refugee employees that we tried to bring in more, and got moving too fast. We had 25 refugees working here and that’s when injuries and other problems arose with languages and communication.”
Ruder added, “If an employer is not willing to go slow, I don’t think refugees are an answer. It really is a heart and mindset change that you have to be willing to embrace.”
It all starts with training, and L&R Pallet moved to a six-week training arch with the hopes of keeping employees for a long time. And it worked after multiple missteps. The company established a training room away from the noise of the typical production environment. Traditionally, with native speaking or Hispanic workers, employees would have three days or so to figure it out. But working with refugees takes a lot more patience.
Ruder learned a lot about cross cultural communication in the process. He advised, “If you handle refugees like you handle every other employee, the program will fail. You have to have better training.”
Many of the refugees could not read or write in their own language much less in English. Training had to move toward a more visual/demonstration-based approach. Managers had to use hand gestures that the workers could understand. Conducted dexterity tests to determine who had the skill to work with hand tools. Many of these people were used to picks and shovels not power tools. But they are very curious, and that curiosity can be deadly.
Ruder stated that they had to communicate with pictures the need to stay away from some big machinery while it was in use, such as grinders.
Communication improved when the company started cataloging the languages and dialects that people spoke. And L&R management developed a color coding system and put those colors on the hard hats worn by employees. Now, at a glance, a manager can know what major languages an employee speaks.
Ruder said, “There is a huge difference between translating and communicating. That was a huge breakthrough for us.”
If the translator doesn’t know what a manger is saying, you are not really communicating to the employee. As the company began using refugee workers in larger numbers at first the injury rates skyrocketed. Ruder remembers, “People started shooting themselves by accident with nail guns.”
One of the challenges is that you can ask refugee workers if they understand, and they will usually nod yes even when they do not have a clue what you said. You must have workers repeatedly demonstrate the safe practice to ensure that they truly got it.
Improved safety training at a slower pace solved that problem. One big misconception that they had to overcome was that people from the same country or area of a country spoke the same dialectic and could communicate with each other. Ruder recalled, “We discovered that we had 17 different languages spoken among our workers…We were putting people together who spoke different dialects and they couldn’t talk. And we didn’t know that.”
How do you find refugee workers? Ruder explained, “Refugees are a great labor resource. Almost everybody has refugees in their cities.”
But you have to know where to look to find them. Ruder suggested that refugee settlement and placement agencies, churches and non-profit organizations are a great place to start. They can usually help identify which refugee groups are living in your area.
Ruder commented, “Our success came from getting to know some churches in the community and pastors who are involved with helping refugees… Churches and organizations are typically the first responders.”
Also, networking with interpreters can be a great resource for communication and recruiting. Ruder said, “Once you find a few good interpreters and understand who is in your area, you usually identify one or two people who become your recruiters.”
L&R Pallet works with one recruiter who speaks six languages and knows a lot about the refugee communities in the area.
You may also have to overcome your own bias or that of some of your employees. Refugees are people who have come here for many reasons. And many of them would love to return home if they could. There is a big difference between refugees who come here desperate to save their lives versus immigrants who relocate to improve their economic opportunities. They have different mentalities and objectives.
Working with refugees has led Ruder and his team to search what is their objective with these people. Besides just giving them a job, how will working with refugees position the company to make a bigger impact?
Refugees are very loyal and can be very hard workers even though they may not be as much of a silver bullet solution as Hispanic labor was ten years ago. Refugees have helped stabilize and improve the labor issue at L&R Pallet while leading to lower worker’s compensation claims. But it was far from easy. Ruder laughed, “They make it look so easy in the video, but this company transformation came because of lots of hard work.”
Ruder summed it all up. He said, “Everyone wants to know the secret sauce at L&R Pallet. But we really aren’t that brilliant. There is a huge God factor going on here at my company that has made all the difference.”