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Grand Forks companies tout new American workforces

Two local companies on Friday hosted tours to share their experiences working with new Americans. The tours came shortly after the official launch this week of Grand Forks' "Welcoming Community Roadmap," a five-year plan aimed at making the city ...

Retrax employees gather for a morning meeting on the production floor. (Dan Niepow/Grand Forks Herald)
Retrax employees gather for a morning meeting on the production floor. (Dan Niepow/Grand Forks Herald)

Two local companies on Friday hosted tours to share their experiences working with new Americans.

The tours came shortly after the official launch this week of Grand Forks' "Welcoming Community Roadmap," a five-year plan aimed at making the city a more welcoming place for newcomers.

For pickup bed cover manufacturer Retrax, new American workers have been crucial, according to human resources manager Larissa Campbell.

"Having that population come into the community I would say has helped us be able to grow the way we need to grow," she said.

She estimates that about 12 percent of the company's workforce is made up of new Americans, and that number continues to rise.

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Retrax, which builds 5,000 to 6,000 covers each month, employs about 165 people, up from 70 in 2012, according to Campbell.

To make the workplace more welcoming for Somali employees, Retrax has made minor adjustments, such as installing foot-washing stations in restrooms and providing space for workers to pray. The company also allowed workers to change shifts to observe Ramadan, which calls for Muslims to fast during daylight hours.

"In my opinion, it's simple, easy changes," Campbell said of the adjustments.

And those changes have paid off for the company, too. New American workers will often recruit their friends and family based on the company's accommodations, Campbell said. Around 80 percent of Retrax's workers are based on referrals, she added.

"It just shows respect for their culture," said Retrax Operations Manager Ed Hippen of the company's alterations for Muslim workers. "I think they all appreciate it."

Campbell acknowledged that it's taken some time for the rest of the company's workforce to understand the changes. But they've eventually come around.

"It gives an opportunity to educate people on what they don't know or understand," said Campbell.

Pasta maker Philadelphia Macaroni Co. hosted a similar tour on Friday morning.

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Meanwhile, the Grand Forks Welcoming Community Roadmap, which officially launched Thursday, will continue to evolve with the city's needs, according to project committee chair Robin David.

The four-pronged plan calls for improving access to services, advancement opportunities, economic opportunities and community connections.

While those four tenets won't be changing, the committee is open to new ideas from the community.

"We think of it ... as a living document," David said. "I think of it as a project that sends off sparks in that, at each stage, it has grown and sent off new ideas that have turned into new initiatives. And this was before it even launched."

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