Local community leaders look to boost manufacturing skills, improve lives for new Americans
Dilli Oli, a Bhutanese immigrant, had a long journey to his job making mattresses in Grand Forks, and local leaders are hoping a new class might make life for his fellow immigrants a little easier.
After arriving in the United States from a Nepalese refugee camp in 2008, he soon found a job with Upper Midwest Sleep, where he now assembles mattresses in the Grand Forks Industrial Park. Oli spoke with confidence as he remembered his first few days on the job, but he recalled a few struggles, from learning how to staple parts of a mattress together to getting more comfortable with English.
"When we came here, we needed money for family survival," he said. "I wouldn't say (I was) very well prepared, but I got along."
Brian Huschle, East Grand Forks campus dean for Northland Community and Technical College, said his school will soon offer a course on manufacturing and workplace skills aimed at new Americans and making sure they're ready to go to work.
"Immigrants come to our community at varying levels of skills," he said. "Some of them may have advanced enough language and cultural skills to walk in and get a decent job—perhaps in manufacturing—off the bat. Others come in with very little English, very little understanding of the culture, and need a lot of time and training to adjust."
Cynthia Shabb is the executive director of the Global Friends Coalition, which helps coordinate language and cultural learning opportunities for new Americans in the Grand Forks area. The new program is all the more important because it's the first local class of its kind, she said.
"If you've never been paid or if you've never had that sense of going into work, you need help getting used to that culture," Shabb said. "When you get sick, you call in. When something comes up, you say ... 'I need tomorrow off.'"
The course joins a range of area education programs that help new Americans learn English and acquire their GED. Ellen Anton, an adult basic education instructor at Northland, said the course can help many immigrants move from basic service jobs—such as dishwashing and housekeeping—into more advanced roles.
"They have to be able to interview," Anton said. "They have to have some concrete skills."
Though many new Americans might understand basic English, they might not understand things like blueprint reading, power tools, forklifts or the more nuanced language skills they'd need on a factory floor, Huschle said.
Huschle stressed that none of those specific skills has been written into the curriculum for certain yet because course organizers are working to finalize course materials with local employers like American Crystal Sugar and Philadelphia Macaroni. The class is expected to be ready by March 1, when Huschle says it will begin teaching 15 students what they need to take their careers to the next level.
He added there are still a number of details that have to be finalized. Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Labor is expected to pay for the course offering, but it's not clear exactly how much it will cost. Likewise, Huschle still wasn't ready to say how long the course will run.
Shabb added that it's possible the course could also be filled with other individuals looking for work, such as high school graduates or others seeking job skills.
The course emerges from a years-long discussion among local economic groups to help develop the new American workforce into a usable labor pool. Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, said he and other local leaders have hoped for a course like this one for more than a year, brainstorming with human resources directors over what would be most helpful for new workers.
"Imagine if you or I were put in the Chinese workforce next Monday," he said. "What would you need to know to be successful? And that's really what we've asked ourselves."
The new course is needed in an area that has an abnormally high rate of open jobs, Wilfahrt said. According to Job Service North Dakota, there were more than 2,000 available job openings in Grand Forks County in November, a more than 3 percent increase beyond the same point last year.
Keith Reitmeier, area manager with Job Service North Dakota, said those numbers are a clear indication that training for new Americans is a logical, pragmatic step to help fill an employment gap.
"These people are here, (and) they're here legally," he said. "Our employers are in dire need of more individuals with skills."
Lisa Borgen, vice president of administration for American Crystal Sugar, called new Americans an "untapped resource."
"I think that we see opportunity for anyone to work in our company who is able to pass the entrance testing," Borgen said. "We are a pretty complicated chemical process—to change a sugar beet into crystal sugar. It's not like standing in a production line putting widgets together. This is a pretty complicated, in-depth process."
Oli spoke with pride of what he's accomplished since he's arrived in Grand Forks. He's married, the father of a young daughter and has a son due soon. He's volunteered his time with the Global Friends Coalition to make the transition to American living easier for fellow immigrants.
"It's a safe place and very friendly people, and now I'm here," Oli said. "I came with one bag, and now I have a car."