Immigrants and refugees bolster NH’s workforce
But employers remain great amid persistent barriers
Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional Granite State News Collaborative series focusing on immigration issues and the experiences of immigrants settling in New Hampshire, including what it’s like seeking asylum here and finding work as an immigrant — the challenges involved, as well as efforts underway to help remove barriers and create more opportunities for advancement.
In a tight labor market, employers have been proposing some novel ways to fill positions. According to Andrew Cullen, career service manager at the International Institute of New England in Manchester, one manufacturing company is considering providing a van on a temporary basis for a group of potential employees that need transportation in order to work.
“We’ve had a lot of employers reaching out to us, looking for help filling labor shortages,” Cullen said.
The institute helps immigrants and refugees settle in the U.S., connecting them with services and helping them to find housing and employment. “They need help with transition, they need help with transportation. Those are big barriers for our people,” said Henry Harris, managing director at the institute.
Employers have become “creative” in working to remove those barriers, Harris said, helping with transportation and English lessons, in some cases. “It’s sort of a new conversation for employers,” he said. “It’s always been an employers’ market. Usually they’re batting away people. In this case it’s more like, wow, we’ve put a lot of ads out there and we’ve interviewed a lot of people and we just keep falling short.”
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among the factors contributing to the widespread workforce shortage is a decline in immigration and certain longstanding issues, including limited numbers of employment-based visa options. The U.S Chamber refers to these as “antiquated, arbitrary quotas” that make it “incredibly difficult for companies across a host of industries to meet their workforce needs.”
Under the Trump administration, refugee admissions dropped to the lowest levels since the resettlement program was established. The program also was on pause for a time due to the pandemic. The Biden administration has revised the limit, increasing the number to 125,000 for FY 2022, up from 15,000 in FY 2021, though the projected number of arrivals is far lower, between 23,000 and 25,000. The limit for FY 2023 has been set at 125,000. For FY 2022 through August, 221 refugees were resettled in New Hampshire, according to the Refugee Processing Center.
As an aging state, New Hampshire is in need of workers, Harris said. “So businesses are looking to fill a lot of positions, and immigrants and refugees have that ability; they’re motivated to work, they need to work to survive, because they’re really starting over in some cases,” he said. “So it is nice when you’ve got a pipeline of motivated people, and when you have a conversation with certain employers and say, ‘It’s an investment, can you carve out some time to include English classes on site, so maybe an hour a day, or every other day, you can hold some English classes?’”
NH Ball Bearings in Peterborough helped arrange carpooling for several refugees they hired in recent months, providing a weekly gas stipend to an employee who drives several co-workers to work.
“I think it behooves all employers to take a look at different opportunities to try to get people through their doors, and to remove any burdens,” said Thomas Johndrow, director of human resources at NHBB. “If we can afford to do it, we should be looking at that.”
Navigating a complex system
Nneka Cullen came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She has since earned two master’s degrees, including an MBA and, after working in a charter school with special needs students, she is now a case worker at the International Institute in Manchester.
Cullen was able to obtain an Employment Authorization Document, which allowed her to work on a temporary basis in the U.S. After she married Andrew Cullen, an American citizen, she was able to apply for a green card, entitling her to permanently live and work in the U.S. At one point, Cullen said, she needed the help of an immigration lawyer to navigate a process that can be all the more confusing when language is an issue. Cullen speaks English, which is the official language of Nigeria.
In addition to learning English, immigrants and refugees often need help navigating cultural differences, Cullen said. “It’s a lot of work trying to get accustomed to the American culture,” she said. And employers can help by learning something about the journeys of their immigrant employees, she said. “Having an understanding of where your employees come from and their culture, even asking questions, trying to understand, it definitely goes a long way,” she said. “I think that’s important for a good work environment for immigrants and refugees.”
Philip Aguot settled in Manchester about 20 years ago after fleeing war in Sudan. Like many refugees, he did not have a car when he arrived, which made it difficult to get a job. But Aguot had some advantages — he had a high school degree and he had studied English. Still, he said, “You have to struggle for a little time for you to understand people and for people to understand you.”
Aguot worked in a variety of industries, including textile and food processing, and earned an MBA. He now works for a hightech defense contractor as well as for the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS) as a bilingual case manager and employment specialist. “I got help, so I have to do the same,” he said.
Aguot works with employers and applicants, sometimes serving as interpreter during job interviews. ORIS provides a wide range of services, Aguot said, helping with computer skills and immigration paperwork, as well as connecting people with English lessons.
“We sit with them and see what their work history is,” he said. “Are they looking for the same industry or do they want to upgrade their skills and have special training?
We connect them with all of that — what they need to upgrade their skills or write their resume if they don’t have one, how to fill out your applications online.”
Some people he helps must work two jobs to support a family and make car payments, he said. It can be a struggle in those circumstances to set time aside for education and even something as seemingly basic as learning English.
Learning rights, responsibilities
In the first few weeks after immigrants and refugees arrive in Manchester, Andrew Cullen meets with them to assess their needs and skills. “We also ask about their education, work history, and any career goal,” he said. “Sometimes, clients are coming from a traumatic experience. They’re not thinking long term; they’re thinking right here in the now. Other people had careers at home and they want to pick that up here.”
Immigrants and refugees are eligible for services with the institute for five years. “We need to definitely empower them, and that involves resume building, building credit, building generational wealth,” he said. “The goal is to get everyone self-sufficient.”
Cullen also informs employers on what they are required to do when it comes to the intricacies of documentation. Employers may be unaware, for instance, that refugees are allowed to work even if their work authorization is still in process, he said.
Orientation for employees includes learning about their rights and about discrimination, he said, “about how people can and cannot treat them and what they should do if they encounter this.” Afghanistan arrivals, for instance, needed to be informed about their rights when it comes to prayer in the workplace, Cullen said.
Institute staff also advocate for workers after they start a job, he said, in some cases addressing complaints about feeling unfairly treated.
“Thankfully, we haven’t had this situation occur, but, if necessary, we’ll get our legal team or find the right legal sources to address the concern, because we have to be the biggest advocate for our clients and that means also helping them advocate for themselves,” he said.
The institute has also been placing greater emphasis on helping people advance and improve their skills, he said, after recognizing that too often clients were still in entry-level positions after their allotted five years working with the institute. The organization has developed partnerships that offer training for such careers as LNAs and offers programs that emphasize the vocabulary needed for particular jobs.
At NH Ball Bearings, advancement is also a goal, but language barriers can slow progress, said Johndrow. “Their learning curve takes a bit longer,” he said. “We are more than willing to bring them along and train them and give them a chance to progress through our company, but they have to learn the new job before they can move on. So it does take a little bit longer.”
Translating skills and degrees
In some cases, people arrive with advanced degrees and extensive work experience but must start from the beginning for various reasons.
“It’s a struggle,” Nneka Cullen said. “The jobs you can apply to are really limited.” And not all employers want to deal with the paperwork involved, she said. “You have to just stay with what you can get and get whatever income you can get with your status.”
Someone with a medical degree from another country, for instance, might have trouble transferring that degree to an American accreditation system. “Or they learned something in a different language, and they really have to learn English before they can apply the skills,” said Bill Maddocks, who teaches organizational management and leadership in the UNH Carsey School Master’s in Community Development Program. He works as a consultant on racial justice and economic development initiatives and worked for more than 16 years in Sub-Saharan Africa on economic development initiatives.
“There could be, and should be, more recognition of the existing skills people come with to this country, as opposed to pushing them to start at the bottom and work their way up,” he said. “And that would obviously solve problems for employers, because they’re looking for skilled people, for people who have the ability to make a contribution and advance within their organization.”
Maddocks has seen some progress when it comes to creating welcoming work environments for immigrants and refugees in New Hampshire. “That commitment within an organization really has to be more than just clicking some boxes and saying we’ve done implicit bias training and we’re all set with that,” he said. “It’s really about transforming the organization internally, in terms of people’s own acceptance of people that are different from themselves, and being able to work alongside someone who might come from a very different culture or racial or religious background.”
Under the U.S. employment-based immigrant visa program, employers can apply to bring foreign workers who fit certain “preference immigrant” categories to work permanently in the U.S. These include certain workers of extraordinary or outstanding ability and people with certain advanced degrees and bachelor’s degrees.
Typically, employers are required to advertise job openings locally under a set of strict criteria to determine if any Americans qualify for the position. Employers must give Americans first preference over foreign workers.
Philip Aguot, who settled in Manchester about 20 years ago after fleeing war in Sudan, works for a defense contractor as well as a bilingual case manager and employment specialist with the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (Photo by Mark Bolton)
As George Bruno, a Manchester-based immigration attorney and former U.S. ambassador, describes it, the application with supporting evidence may be several inches thick, entail thousands of dollars in application fees, undergo extensive government database vetting, and can take up to a year for processing by USCIS. If successful, the candidate gets a “green card” and becomes a “Lawful Permanent Resident” of the United States.
Alternatively, some employers seek temporary nonimmigrant workers under the H-1B program. Since FY 2014, the H-B1 annual quota has been reached within 10 days of the start of the application period, on April 1st, according to Bruno.
The U.S. Chamber has argued that low annual visa caps make it “incredibly difficult for companies across a host of industries to meet their workforce needs.” In FY 2021, less than one out of every three individuals seeking an employment-based visa succeeded in obtaining one.
In fact, the H-1B program also has an unrealistically low quota, said Bruno, at 85,000 visas granted annually by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with 20,000 of these set aside for workers with master’s degrees. By law, 6,800 petitions are reserved for Singapore and China under a freetrade agreement. In FY 2022, there were about 308,000 petitions. That means employers have a little less than one in four chances of making it through the first step of the application process before merits or qualifications can even be considered, Bruno said.
Bruno’s law firm, Mesa Law LLC in Manchester, submitted five H-1B applications for an Indian restaurant chain in the Boston area seeking to hire a chef trained in south Indian cuisine. None made it through the lottery.
“So now the restaurant is in a position where it can’t hire any Americans because American chefs are typically not familiar with South Indian cuisine. And the restaurant is in a position now to have to cut back its hours and reduce its staff,” he said.
“It wanted to expand, so it creates a very difficult economic situation for this one business. It’s in dire straits. A lot of other businesses find themselves in similar positions.”
And that can affect the local economy, he said. A Derry restaurant his firm worked with had a similar experience seeking a chef trained in Caribbean cuisine.
In addition, Bruno said, employers seeking to hire seasonal workers under the H-2B program face difficulties finding enough workers for kitchen staff, landscaping and applepicking, he said. “It’s extremely difficult for the resort industry, which of course affects the economy of New Hampshire and all New England states.”
“If there’s anything that typifies the system these days is that it’s becoming more bureaucratic. There are more steps and hoops to jump through,” Bruno said. “It’s becoming more expensive, and it’s taking much longer to get a work application through.” The system needs a serious overhaul, he said.
Given the longstanding political stalemate over immigration reform, that overhaul could be a long way off. Meanwhile, immigrants and refugees who make it through the system find that the American Dream they had in mind can at times feel elusive.
“You get here and try to achieve that dream and it might not be as easy as you thought,” Nneka Cullen said. “It doesn’t just happen overnight. Reality kind of hits you.”
Philip Aguot encourages immigrants and refugees he works with to have faith that things will eventually get easier.
“Somebody like me, we can say, ‘Don’t worry, you will be fine. We went through all of this,’” he said. “And that gives them hope that they will be fine.”
This article is being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative as part of our Race and Equity Initiative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.