In Detroit, Middle East­ern refugees help car­mak­ers step on the gas

▶ Refugees from Syria and Iraq find jobs in the auto in­dus­try ▶ “They work re­ally hard, and that’s what com­pa­nies are look­ing for”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - News -

Re­nan Sadak , who has a de­gree in com­puter sci­ence from his na­tive Iraq, could land only an $11-an-hour job man­ag­ing a liquor store when he ar­rived in Detroit seven years ago as a refugee. “I got mar­ried, and I wanted to make more money,” Sadak says, but the city was in the throes of re­ces­sion.

Last year the resur­gent auto in­dus­try be­gan to change the prospects for work. Sadak was hired in June to drive a truck shut­tling auto parts for Mid­west Freight Sys­tems in War­ren, Mich., at dou­ble his orig­i­nal pay at the liquor shop. “Now I’m mak­ing a de­cent wage,” he says. “I’m cov­er­ing all the bills.”

At a time when Europe and many parts of the U.S. are di­vided about in­te­grat­ing refugees from the Middle East, Michi­gan is pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for im­mi­grants from the war-torn re­gion. The state and the city of Detroit have the U. S.’s high­est con­cen­tra­tion of res­i­dents with roots in that part of the world. The Detroit area’s Ara­bic com­mu­nity goes back a cen­tury.

As the auto in­dus­try re­cov­ers, com­pa­nies in Michi­gan rang­ing from small op­er­a­tions such as Mid­west Freight to big­ger ones like Denso, a Ja­panese auto parts maker, are tap­ping im­mi­grant work­ers to fill a la­bor short­age. New­com­ers from the Ara­bic-speak­ing world are ben­e­fit­ing, as are refugees from Myan­mar (for­merly Burma). “Three years ago, maybe 20 to 30 per­cent of the refugees could get work in the auto in­dus­try,” says Jas­mine Ward, a man­u­fac­tur­ing re­cruiter at Al­le­giance Staffing in Fraser, Mich. The au­tomak­ers and their sup­pli­ers just weren’t hir­ing. Now, she says, “if they want to work, they can pretty much find a job. They work re­ally hard, and that’s what com­pa­nies are look­ing for.”

The auto in­dus­try is hir­ing longestab­lished res­i­dents, too. African Amer­i­cans last year made up about 15 per­cent of the U.S. auto work­force, from a low of 11 per­cent in 2010, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Census Bureau. Black un­em­ploy­ment in Michi­gan fell to 11.6 per­cent in 2015, down from 23.9 per­cent in 2010, says the U.S. Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics. White un­em­ploy­ment in 2015 was 4.5 per­cent, vs. 10.6 per­cent in 2010.

Last year, Michi­gan ac­cepted 1,162 Iraqi refugees and 246 Syr­i­ans, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Depart­ment of State data. That’s more than any other state ex­cept Texas and Cal­i­for­nia, which each ac­cepted about 200 more refugees than Michi­gan. They’ll in­te­grate them into pop­u­la­tions at least twice the size of Michi­gan’s. The state has drawn a to­tal of 13,800 peo­ple from those two coun­tries, mostly from Iraq, in the past five years.

In 2008 only about 17 per­cent of refugees in the Detroit area were placed in jobs. Last year about 60 per­cent were, says Vesna Cizmic, pro­gram man­ager for refugee ser­vices at Lutheran So­cial Ser­vices of Michi­gan, which has a con­tract with the state to help asy­lum seek­ers find em­ploy­ment. “In 2013 we started notic­ing the in­crease in de­mand for man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs for refugees, and about 60 per­cent of all em­ploy­ment is now with the auto in­dus­try,” Cizmic says.

Mid­west Freight Sys­tems’ owner, Samir Latic, says he wasn’t sure the com­pany he started with his brother in 2004 would sur­vive the re­ces­sion, when au­tomak­ers all but halted pro­duc­tion. In­stead of fold­ing, the brothers bought more trucks while prices were cheap. By the end of 2012, the com­pany, which does about half its busi­ness with Ford Mo­tor, had ramped up to 24-hour ser­vice. It now has about 250 em­ploy­ees and 200 trucks. Latic, who fled the Bos­nian war and came to the U.S. in 1996, says that about 40 per­cent of his work­ers come from such places as Iraq, So­ma­lia, and Ye­men.

Sadak says he heard that Mid­west Freight was look­ing for help from a fel­low Iraqi at the com­pany. “It’s hard work, but that’s OK, it’s a good job,” says Sadak, who’s paid 42¢ a mile and es­ti­mates he drives 2,500 miles a week. A Chris­tian, he fled Iraq to avoid religious per­se­cu­tion and spent sev­eral years in Jor­dan be­fore be­ing cleared to come to the U. S.

When Denso de­cided in 2013 that it had to ex­pand its fac­tory in Bat­tle Creek, Mich., it turned to the lo­cal Chris­tian refugee com­mu­nity from Myan­mar for work­ers, says Sarah Frink, man­ager of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, cor­po­rate ser­vices, and com­pen­sa­tion for Denso Man­u­fac­tur­ing Michi­gan. Bat­tle Creek has long been a desti­na­tion for refugees from that coun­try, with 356 ar­riv­ing last year and al­most 3,000 since 2010, ac­cord­ing to U.S. data. Denso trans­lates safety and ben­e­fit in­for­ma­tion into the Myan­mar lan­guage, and bilin­gual em­ploy­ees help new­com­ers cope, Frink says. The fac­tory has a Myan­mar em­ployee re­source group and of­fers English classes fo­cused on man­u­fac­tur­ing terms.

There is some ev­i­dence that Michi­gan’s refugee com­mu­nity is out­per­form­ing their na­tive peers, as well as im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties else­where in the U.S., says David

Dyssegaard Kal­lick, di­rec­tor of the Im­mi­gra­tion Re­search Ini­tia­tive for the Fis­cal Pol­icy In­sti­tute in New York. For­eign-born res­i­dents make up about 9 per­cent of the Detroit area’s pop­u­la­tion but con­trib­ute about 11 per­cent of eco­nomic out­put, beat­ing the na­tional av­er­age by 30 per­cent and trail­ing only Cincin­nati and Pitts­burgh in that mea­sure. �Jeff Green

The bot­tom line Refugees from the Mideast and else­where can find good auto jobs in Detroit and get help from refugees who came be­fore.

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