Prince Shema arrived in Michigan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo via Ethiopia in 2013. With help from a local nonprofit organization, he completed an independent living preparation program while going to high school.
When the nonprofit connected him with a job opportunity providing translation services to a local company seeking to hire more refugees, he jumped at the chance to help others building new lives in West Michigan.
“I wanted to help out my own people,” Shema told MiBiz.
According to the U.S. State Department, Michigan has resettled more than 700 refugees since October 2021 — a total exceeded only by California, New York and Texas. Michigan welcomed more refugees than neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana combined, and more than 100 more than Ohio, the next largest host in the Midwest, according to federal data.
The majority of the refugees resettled in Michigan are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — like Shema — or Syria.
Despite a legal right to work, unemployment among refugees nationally tends to be relatively high compared to U.S.-born workers and other immigrants, but employed refugees tend to have lower turnover rates than other workers.
Several West Michigan nonprofits, colleges and workforce development agencies have stepped in as intermediaries between refugees fleeing their home countries and employers, helping people find meaningful work while companies clamor to fill labor shortages.
Bethany Christian Services Inc.’s refugee employment office in Grand Rapids works with more than 100 businesses in West Michigan to connect refugees with work opportunities. The nonprofit provides pre-screening of all candidates, pre-orientation and training for people seeking employment, onsite translation services to ease adjustment periods and ensure successful orientations, and ongoing job retention services aimed at wage growth and career advancement.
Most refugees find work in the manufacturing, health care, retail and service industries, with manufacturing leading the pack.
Interest in hiring refugees has picked up amid labor shortages across industries, according to Bethany Christian officials.
“In the two years that I have been working here in the job developer position, I have not really had to seek out employers just because of the nature of the job market at this time,” said Bethany Christian Refugee Job Developer Gabrielle Nye. “Lately, it has been employers reaching out saying, ‘We heard about this program and we’re really interested in getting employees from you.’”
Nye fields calls from companies across Michigan seeking employees.
Treetops Collective, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit focused on welcoming refugee women and teens, takes a holistic approach to aiding refugees’ transition to West Michigan. That approach includes helping refugees pursue employment, but Development Director Abigail Punt said the organization’s mission goes beyond finding specific jobs.
“It’s really about equipping someone to be their whole self in this community,” Punt said.
Many refugees had careers in their home countries and starting over in the U.S. — in the same field or a new one — takes much more than landing a job. Treetops serves as a connector between the refugees they serve and other local organizations, including the Literacy Center of West Michigan, Grand Rapids Community College and West Michigan Works!, to help individuals achieve their career, educational and personal goals.
Treetops’ programs focus on building community and social connections, and currently serve more than 50 women and more than 30 teens.
Michigan Turkey Producers Co-Op Inc., a processing cooperative in Wyoming, unknowingly got ahead of the pack when it started hiring refugees about a decade ago. The cooperative partnered with Bethany Christian Services in 2012 to onboard a Burmese refugee sponsored by a local church group. Since then, the cooperative has employed hundreds of Burmese, Nepali and Congolese refugees who today make up about 45 percent of the company’s employees.
Michigan Turkey Producers Vice President of Human Resources MaryAnne McCaffrey said hiring refugees has helped the company cope with worker shortages. When McCaffrey first started working with Bethany Christian in the early 2010s, the cooperative was undergoing a period of growth and needed to hire a large number of new employees.
“There’s all these refugees who are just coming to the United States from Burma, and I think we can really place them here,” McCaffrey recalled thinking.
At the time, Bethany Christian had a large number of recently placed refugees seeking work. It was a “perfect match,” McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey initially was nervous about hiring refugees because of language barriers, but support from Bethany Christian’s translation services and cultural awareness workshops eased the process.
As Michigan Turkey Producers’ refugee worker population grew, the company hired former refugees to serve as on-staff translators. Many of the people initially hired as translators have since taken on additional responsibility as operation managers, human resource managers and recruiters.
Shema joined Michigan Turkey Producers’ human resources team in 2018 and was promoted to human resources assistant manager in 2020. He continues to use his fluency in English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and other languages to help orient and retain new employees.
For McCaffrey, working with refugees is a win-win.
“Working with Bethany and the refugee population is definitely an advantage, not only just to find labor but really to enhance your organization,” McCaffrey said. “The broader our world becomes, the broader every organization needs to be. The more we can accept and include individuals from all over the world, we’ll only be a stronger company.”
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