It’s amazing what you can learn when you meet with people and actually listen to what they have to say.
As part of its Business Retention and Expansion Program, The Development Corporation staff met with tenants in our industrial parks. A portion of our conversation focused on workforce issues. Their comments centered on the usual suspects — availability, productivity, reliability and the ability to pass a drug test.
One of our tenants mentioned an employment program with which we were unfamiliar, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. The company employed workers from the program and was pleased with the quality of the refugees’ work.
Being the “no stone left unturned” kind of guy that I am, I researched refugee resettlement programs to learn how they might work for the businesses in our industrial parks.
First, a little background.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is “a person fleeing his or her country because of persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution, because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Refugees differ from other immigrants in that they simply can’t remain in their home country safely.
I was surprised that it’s the UNHCR that determines whether a person qualifies for refugee status and not individual countries. I wasn’t surprised to learn that since 1975 America has welcomed more than three million refugees, more than all other countries combined.
As a means of promoting self-sufficiency and facilitating adjustment to life in the United States, the government allows a refugee to work in any job except those for which American citizenship is required. Placing a refugee in a private-sector job as quickly as reasonable is a top priority. To facilitate this and to provide other supportive services, the government created a system of refugee resettlement centers across the country.
Armed with a little knowledge on the program, I contacted the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Center in Colchester and asked for a tour and a briefing. Two weeks ago, Alyssa Vigneault, one of the Refugee Center’s employment counselors, gave me a tour and allowed me to sit in on a class where 14 Nepali men and women were reviewing their job readiness skills with a focus on soft skills.
As I watched Alyssa quiz them on the proper procedures for calling in sick, getting to the work site when the buses weren’t running, and the importance of body language, I couldn’t help but think that most American teenagers would benefit from a similar class. Working through a translator, she handled the class professionally and sensitively. She had the ability to make the participants laugh without making a particular participant feel as if others were laughing at them.
Or they might have been laughing at me; I am often uncertain. I was certain that the class had a firm conceptual grasp on what soft skills are and why they’re important.
During my tour, I learned that the Refugee Center’s employment counselors pre-screen applicants and match employers with qualified employees, help manage external factors so employees can focus on work, provide interpretation services for initial job training if needed, and offer ongoing English classes and workshops about the American workplace to facilitate a refugee’s assimilation into the workforce.
More importantly, the employment counselors don’t disappear after helping a refugee land a job. They conduct follow-up visits to ensure the placement is working for both the employer and the employee.
Alyssa shared with me employer testimonials they received about the program. Employers were pleased with the refugees’ personal initiative, skillset and strong work ethic. They consider refuge workers highly motivated to become self-sufficient and highly interested in learning new skills as a way to attain economic stability. According to employers, refugee employees are reliable, and turnover is low.
In the near future, TDC will invite a team from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to meet our tenants to discuss how the resettlement program might help them find qualified workers.
Resettlement is a challenging process, and as I sat in Alyssa’s class I tried to imagine myself being uprooted from my home, relocated to a foreign country where I had, at best, a cursory understanding of the language and culture, and made to find a job and a place to live.
I quickly determined that I would starve to death.
Paul A. Grasso Jr., president and CEO, The Development Corporation, 190 Banker Road, Suite 500, Plattsburgh, N.Y., 12901, 563-3100, fax 562-2232, email email@example.com.