Global workers, local business: With help from the IRC, local companies hire refugees

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In the last 20 years, the Omni Charlottesville Hotel has hired hundreds of refugees, such as Paw Zaw, Waseem Nasir, Liqaa Al Behadili and Joseph Sesay, who currently serve in areas of housekeeping, food and beverage and guest services. Photo: Eze Amos In the last 20 years, the Omni Charlottesville Hotel has hired hundreds of refugees, such as Paw Zaw, Waseem Nasir, Liqaa Al Behadili and Joseph Sesay, who currently serve in areas of housekeeping, food and beverage and guest services. Photo: Eze Amos

Refugees flee violence and persecution to rebuild their lives—and careers—in new places, and over the years, the Charlottesville area has been the initial home for more than 3,500 refugees from 32 countries. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps them integrate into the workforce by partnering with local businesses.

Design Electric, a 250-person company that builds commercial, residential and industrial electric systems, and the Omni Charlottesville Hotel both have long histories with the IRC.

Casey Carwile, personnel director at Design Electric, says that workers who were recent refugees in 2000 still work at the firm and most work as electricians or electrician helpers. “There are inspirational stories,” says Carwile. “Two brothers from Russia came to work for us and both finished the entire electrician apprenticeship program in four years. Now they are lead men on a $14 million project at the university.” Recently, a third brother has come to Charlottesville and joined Design Electric as a pre-apprentice.

Carwile says the decision to hire refugees is a practical one. “We need to get our work done, so we need qualified, hard-working people. People from different countries and different backgrounds, we all work together.” Carwile says Design Electric has hired about 30 people through the IRC.

Language can be a barrier to employment and education for recent refugees, and Design Electric works with the IRC to provide language classes with an emphasis on the English required for electrician training.

Patti Shifflette, human resources director with the Omni Charlottesville Hotel, says that in the last 20 years, the Omni has hired hundreds of refugees. The practice has helped the hotel maintain staffing levels in a city with very low unemployment. But Shifflette feels the greatest benefit has been the creation of a diverse workforce. “Diversity is a strength that positively impacts our culture in the workplace and brings a high level of respect amongst all members of our staff. Our guests appreciate being able to meet and converse with staff who come from all areas of the world,” says Shifflette. “Refugees bring with them a strong desire to work and make a new home for their families, which brings to Omni a strong work-ethic and desire to succeed.”

Newly hired refugees tend to have entry-level positions, and the hotel often pairs a new refugee with another employee who speaks the same language. Initial job training is designed to be accessible even for those who do not have strong English language skills. As an employee’s language skills improve, she has the opportunity to move into positions suited to her individual strengths and skills that “offer higher compensation and growth potential,” says Shifflette.

To some extent, economic growth relies on population growth and the related increase in labor. Refugees and immigrants contribute significantly to the American economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute, first-generation immigrants are 13 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 16 percent of the labor force and 18 percent of small business owners. Refugees and immigrants also bring diverse skills that help businesses gain flexibility in a fast-changing global economy.

The benefits of working alongside refugees can also be more personal. “When one of our refugee employees becomes a U.S. citizen, it’s one of the proudest moments, and that feeling of pride and excitement spreads throughout the hotel,” says Shifflette. “Being born and raised in the U.S., it has made me realize what many of us take for granted.”

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