IOWA CITY — Immigrants and refugees are, and will continue to be, a crucial pillar of Iowa’s workforce, especially given the state’s current unemployment numbers.
But connecting those “new Americans” with those jobs and keeping them there will take a concerted effort on the part of local employers, according to panelists Thursday at the “New Americans in the Iowa Workplace” event.
About 75 attendees, including representatives from Corridor businesses and the University of Iowa, listened as the panelists — several of whom were themselves immigrants or refugees — spoke at the MERGE coworking space in Iowa City.
The panels were sponsored by the university’s Staff Languages and Cultural Services division, the Iowa City Area Development Group and IowaWORKS.
Mainstream organizations must equip themselves to handle the cultural and linguistic needs for employees of all different backgrounds, said Lata D’Mello, assistant director of Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa.
Part of this, she said, involves hiring and fostering a diverse base of employees, including among leadership ranks.
“You cannot have diversity in a workplace if you tokenize, ‘Oh, let’s look for that one person of color on the city council, and then we’re done,’” D’Mello said.
The Iowa companies that have the most success with attracting and retaining employees from different background are those that communicate their expectations clearly, said Kate Pine, business marketing specialist with IowaWORKS.
If there’s an issue with an employee’s attendance or performance, for example, “Rather than that knee-jerk reaction, that’s disciplinary strike one, let’s have a conversation and really try and understand what’s driving this,” Pine said.
Hiring employees from other countries often comes with continuing benefits, as several often will go on to become entrepreneurs in their communities, said Claudio Hidalgo, a Spanish professor at Kirkwood Community College.
Of workers from Spanish-speaking countries, Hidalgo said, “They know they don’t want to work in the meat plant forever, or building houses. The minute they can, they start their own little businesses.”
He pointed to what he said were at least 15 Mexican-owned businesses in Iowa City, compared to one in the late 1970s, when he first came to Iowa from Chile.
One “success story” highlighted among panelists was the Earn and Learn program at Nordstrom’s fulfillment center in Cedar Rapids.
A partnership between the company and Kirkwood Community College, the five-week program lets workers take two hours of English-language classes before each workday, then begin full-time work if they pass the company’s preemployment test.
“We would bring these people on as regular employees so they know we’re invested in them — ‘We really want to bring you in and keep you,’” said Denise Pudil, recruiting manager with Nordstrom.
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