Reducing the language barrier

Companies offer English-as-a-second-lanuguage classes, transport to new hires

Ablavi Ditowovo stocks shelves at the Frontier Co-Op corporate office in Norway on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Ditowovo orig
Ablavi Ditowovo stocks shelves at the Frontier Co-Op corporate office in Norway on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Ditowovo originally came to the U.S. from Togo in 2010, and she found a job at Frontier by working with a job search agency. Frontier has begun working with two local nonprofit agencies to recruit workers for its four facilities. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS/NORWAY — Along with the usual on-the-job training one might expect, Amir Emduma — a warehouse packer for Nordstrom in Cedar Rapids — also picked up some additional skills from his employer.

“I never spoke English before I came to America,” Emduma said, noting that when he arrived in June 2017 he spoke only Arabic. So Nordstrom helped him learn English.

Groups who don’t speak English often have been shut out of much of the American workforce because of hurdles with language, lack of transportation or other barriers.

But with Iowa’s — and the nation’s — unemployment rate at historic lows, Corridor employers are piloting classes and services as a plus to attract recent immigrants to fill their open jobs.

Nordstrom’s program, Earn and Learn, began in the spring of this year at its fulfillment center in Cedar Rapids. Through a partnership with Kirkwood Community College, new immigrant hires spend the first two hours of their workday learning from English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, instructors in Nordstrom’s building before going to their jobs.

Brandy Lindsey, Nordstrom’s director of talent acquisition in Cedar Rapids, said the employees work in groups of between 10 to 12 per instructor in whatever language they knew before arriving the United States.

The instructors also spend time teaching the new employees about American workplace behavior and “soft skills” they need to succeed either at Nordstrom or in other industries.


After five weeks, the students take Nordstrom’s standard pre-employment test. If they pass, they graduate from the program and begin working like any other employee at the fulfillment center.

Between 30 to 40 employees have passed through Earn and Learn so far, with the last round of students graduating November 20.

The program is on a hiatus for the holiday season, but Lindsey expects it to restart early next spring.

“We would continue this as long as there’s a need from a growth perspective on our business and the talent pool is there,” she said.

Emduma now packages online orders for shipment at the company after graduating. He said the program has the potential to help dozens more immigrants and refugees adapt to life in the American workplace.

“It’s changed my life,” Emduma said. “They gave us a good plan to study and work at the same time. This program is good, good, good.”

searching for spice workers

The lack of available workers is even tighter in Norway, a town of about 525 people a half-hour southwest of Cedar Rapids.

Frontier Co-Op, a producer and distributor of herbs, spices and various health products, has had trouble filling its open spots on its manufacturing and packing lines in recent years because of the overall worker shortage.

Megan Schulte, Frontier’s human resources manager, said the company and others throughout the region have been forced to adjust to the new realities of low unemployment.


“There’s not people standing there at your door wanting to come in,” she said. “Those days are gone.”

About three months ago, Frontier partnered with Willis Dady Homeless Services and the Catherine McAuley Center, both in Cedar Rapids, to find employees who recently came to the United States, or face other barriers to employment.

Frontier doesn’t offer ESL classes new migrants, and employees need at least a basic understanding of English to read ingredient labels to comply with federal regulations.

Frontier provides translators and extra accommodations to new immigrant workers when possible, Schulte said, while Catherine McAuley Center offers some ESL training through its refugee resettlement efforts.

The company’s biggest accommodation is partnering with Catherine McAuley to transport new workers to and from their shifts at of the company’s distribution centers in the Corridor for all three shifts during the workday.

So far, Frontier has hired five full-time employees through its partnership with the social service agencies, and 12 to 15 more are working on a temp-to-hire contract.

The company also is working on a leadership program to help new hires that have high-level qualifications, such as college degrees, attain higher positions within Frontier’s ranks.

Ablavi Ditowovo, 35, works in Frontier’s distributing plant packing online orders. She graduated with a four-year anthropology degree from a university in Togo, and worked various jobs in her home country before winning the visa lottery and moving to the United States in 2010.


She started working at Frontier in 2015 after moving closer to family that came to the Corridor, and since has connected with other Togolese migrants who found work with Frontier.

“It’s so good, I feel like I’m home again,” she said.

Demographic shifts

Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson said the state’s labor force is contracting as older workers retire and some younger workers leave the state. Meanwhile, the birthrate among white, non-Hispanic Iowans is below the rate of replacement and is expected to continue to drop over time.

Swenson said Iowa has depended on tapping immigrant populations for the past three decades for labor, particularly in the construction, manufacturing and food processing fields, and more recently ramped up competition for foreign-born workers with advanced degrees to fill jobs in other fields as other states look for the same high-skill employees.

“Iowa’s labor force growth is slow to stagnant, and the only way it’s going to grow its labor force is through in-migration,” he said, adding that a number of companies also are looking at other historically underemployed groups as another source for workers.

politics involved

America’s long-running debate over immigration policy has grown more intense as then-candidate Donald Trump made the issue a central tenet of his presidential campaign.

Besides calls for a border wall, greater policing of the United States-Mexico border and other efforts to curb illegal immigration since becoming president, Trump has endorsed the RAISE Act, a bill that would halve the number of new permanent residents annually, end the visa diversity lottery and cap the number of refugee admissions into the country to 50,000 yearly.

The bill has yet to be heard in committee.

Last year, Trump also signed his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order that partially hamstrings employers from recruiting non-American labor.

One study estimates the order led to a 41 percent increase in denials for H-1B visas sought by foreign workers in specialized jobs.

Technology companies often have relied on H-1B workers to fill engineering and software jobs, saying there aren’t enough American workers with the required skills to fill demand.


“The message from business broadly is to open up the borders, ask more people into this country, ‘let’s seek, find and employ qualified people,’” Swenson said. “And then we have a political situation in which the borders have been closed, especially to people of certain groups or classifications, and I think it’s sending a chilling message to other countries as to the desirability of coming here.”

Nordstrom corporate spokeswoman Emily Sterken said the program is purely for finding workers and has no political message with it. However, Lindsey said the distribution center’s workforce is more diverse as a result of the program, and that comes with added benefits.

“It’s not just that we’re teaching them about the job, we are, but we’re seeing things on our end from what we learn from them and their experiences,” she said.

Many of the new employees are from Democratic Republic of Congo and nearby African nations.

Schulte said Frontier has a history of supporting global community-building efforts, so it makes sense that it would seek more diverse employees in their ranks.

But, ultimately, Schulte believes it’s just a smart business move.

“It’s hard for an employer to pass up a group of people that are willing, hardworking and want a job to say, no, I’ll wait, and they watch sales and success go down,” she said.

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