Hiring Refugees: How One Big Factory Did It
GE Appliances is working to hire 1,000 people at its Louisville factories by 2023. Its secret weapon in a competitive job market: A recent program to hire Afghan refugees, immigrants and others for whom English is a second language.
Edris Akseer fled Afghanistan last summer with his family and two of his brothers after the Taliban takeover. Arriving eventually in Louisville, Ky., he took a job on the refrigerator production line at GE Appliances’ factory there this March.
Soon, Akseer, who has a degree from Kabul University and had previously worked as a translator for the U.S. Army, became the go-to person for other Afghans at the plant. “The team leaders and supervisors always ask for my help, and whenever people from Afghanistan have problems communicating they always ask for my help,” says Akseer, 30, who had also helped found an institute in Afghanistan to teach boys and girls English, computer programming and other subjects.
GE Appliances has been working to recruit more Afghans, hundreds of whom have settled in Louisville, as well as other refugees and bilingual workers to its sprawling plant, which employs more than 5,000 blue-collar workers. Soon Akseer interviewed with GE Appliances’ human resources department, and took on a role helping to recruit and train other Afghan refugees.
“It is very exciting for Afghans to come here. We never had a factory like this so when you see something like this you are excited about it,” he says. When Afghans (many of whom help to support family back in Afghanistan) come for interviews at the plant, he says, “they see the factory is well-organized and that people get good pay and have chance to do overtime.”
GE Appliances is just the latest company to set up a program to hire refugees, who studies show stay at jobs longer than their native-born counterparts. The company, which is owned by Chinese consumer electronics conglomerate Haier, has hired 40 refugees from Afghanistan for manufacturing jobs in its Louisville plant, among a total of 90 people who speak English as a second language, since the program began in February.
The company provides interpreters, and has translated more than 100 documents related to health, safety and employment into multiple langauges. On the plant floor, a total of 42 languages are spoken, a company spokeswoman says. GE Appliances plans to host nine more ESL employee orientations before the end of the year in an effort to ramp up its hiring efforts of refugees, immigrants and those for whom English is a second language.
The initiative comes as the population of global refugees has swelled since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, while the labor market for manufacturing jobs in the United States has become increasingly tight. Louisville (with a population around 620,000) is a competitive market for blue-collar workers because it is both a logistics hub and home to a large Ford plant.
Meanwhile, GE Appliances has been growing since it split from General Electric in 2016. Haier Smart Home, the publicly traded affiliate of Haier that owns it, reported 2021 revenue of more than $10 billion at current exchange rates. Last year, the company announced that it would invest $450 million in the group of plants dubbed Appliance Park where it manufactures washers, dryers, refrigerators and dishwashers. Along with the new investment, GE Appliances plans to hire 1,000 new people by the end of 2023.
In late-2021, as the company began to think about how it would fill those openings, it started an initiative to hire people whose first language was not English to work in the plants, says Beth Mickle, manager of talent acquisition. “We thought this could help broaden our pipeline of candidates,” she says. She brought on Gabriela Salazar, a Spanish speaker, as a recruiter, focused on bilingual hires.
For the refugee program, the company worked in coordination with non-profits Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries that were already helping with refugee resettlement. “They said, ‘Are you interested or willing to hire refguees?’ We said, ‘Yes, we can do it, we can support it,’” Mickle says. To date, 89% of those who’ve been hired through the program are still on the job.
The effort to hire refugees at manufacturing plants has a long history. Chobani’s billionaire founder Hamdi Ulukaya, a Kurd raised in eastern Turkey, has been one of the loudest and longest-standing proponents of hiring refugees. He started hiring refugees at his yogurt company and subsequently founded non-profit Tent to help businesses support refugees. “The moment a refugee gets a job, it’s the moment they stop being a refugee,” Ulukaya has said.
A 2018 report commissioned by Tent found that the average turnover rate for refugees at manufacturing companies was just 4%, far below the 11% for all employees. Across industries, 73% of the employers surveyed then reported a higher retention rate for refugees than for other employees. Although Tent has not updated that research, Tent associate director Yaron Schwartz, who leads the non-profit’s work in the U.S., says that anecdotally those higher retention rates have continued. “When companies invest in refugees, refugees are very loyal and grateful for the work opportunity and often stay at the company and often take on leadership roles,” he says.
Last fall, 32 major companies—including Amazon, Facebook, Pfizer, Tyson Foods and UPS—announced that they would join Tent’s network of companies dedicated to training and hiring Afghan refugees. Today, more than 100 companies have joined the Tent Coalition for Refugees in the U.S., which has expanded beyond its original focus on Afghan refugees.
Chobani has hired numerous refugees at its plants in upstate New York and Idaho; Pfizer has hired 50 refugees so far through its refugee leadership initiative; and Tyson has worked to integrate Afghan refugees into its manufacturing plants through ESL initiatives, Schwartz says. Tent provides resources to companies in its network to help them hire and train refugees, and also holds hiring events in conjunction with local nonprofits in areas with large refugee populations, including Los Angeles, Houston and northern Virginia. GE Appliances set up its program on its own and has not been part of the Tent network, but has since been in touch with the non-profit, Salazar says.
While Tent does not have aggregate data on how many refugees have been hired as a result of its efforts, Schwartz says that corporate interest has surged over the past year with the Afghan and Ukrainian refugee crises. “We’ve seen tremendous amounts of interest from the business community because of the pressing nature of the refugee crises around the world and labor shortage in the U.S, economy,” he says.
The global refugee population had swelled to 27.1 million by the end of 2021, according to UNHCR. More than two-thirds of them come from just five countries, Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. The data predates Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has resulted in 5.4 million refugees.
As for Akseer, much of his family, including four sisters, remain in Afghanistan, and he tries to support them with his job at the plant—and he talks with them a few times a week. “All those efforts and 20 years came back to zero,” he says. “It is so heartbreaking for all Afghans.”