In Troubled Towns, Refugees Offer Workplace Relief

Bringing in displaced persons may not only benefit local economies, but developing their talents could launch new educational models.

The heartbreaking and escalating refugee crisis of recent years has caused social and political unrest throughout the world, and been a flashpoint in many sharp political debates.

Some experts believe that the assimilation of the 22.5 million refugees in the world into safe harbor countries may not only benefit local economies, but also that developing their talents could help launch new educational models in other countries.

The key to the equation, as it is for so many things, is jobs.

“Jobs are the best foundation for addressing their humanitarian needs,” says David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee. “There needs to be an economic livelihoods solution as well as a social service element to support refugees.”

That social service element includes a big focus on education. It’s estimated that half of all refugees are under the age of 18. Because of school shortages in overcrowded camps, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children, according to the UN. “Those children get no education, which means they have no hope,” said Niels Nielsen, Managing Director of the World Refugee School (WRS) in an interview with Reinvent.

Nielsen: education plays a big part in refugee assimilation

Addressing the education problem of refugee children may have an important side benefit, by modeling a way to correct some of our own public education shortcomings. At WRS, Nielsen aims to make education more customized and attuned to an individual’s learning style. “This is a chance for us to do things right,” Nielsen said. “So some of the things we are developing (for refugees) could become part of the answer to the educations crisis that we are facing here.”

The solution: “innovation and technology,” says Nielsen. “There is no way we can bring them education without using the scaling power of technology.”

A multi-faceted problem

Refugees, as defined by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), are those forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. They’re typically granted asylum by the country they enter, with the refugee designation protecting their human rights by international law and making them eligible for many types of aid.

Some companies are already stepping up. Sparked by last year’s pledge by the White House to ban Syrian refugees, Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years in the 75 countries where the company does business. “We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in a letter to employees.

“They’re here to do a job, to make a living for their family. Just like me and you.”

Some companies and staffing agencies see refugees as a way to fill openings which they can’t. A report published by the Tent Foundation, a refugee support group founded by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, found that refugees often land jobs that locals “would rather not do, such as clean offices, pick fruit, work in hotels and restaurants and care for the elderly.”

In a recent two-year period, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), one of a number of national refugee resettlement agencies, says its network has helped place 4,816 refugees in jobs within six months of their arrival in the country. Most are in low-paying jobs, earning an average of $10.26 per hour. The vast majority of companies that work with the USCRI are small businesses that hire just one or two refugees.

Those refugees have made a big difference in communities like Erie PA, a rust belt town which has one of the highest concentrations in the U.S. of people who’ve fled persecution. As many as 700 refugees have been arriving there annually in recent years. Sterling Technologies, a small local plastics maker, started hiring them a few years ago when it couldn’t find enough workers willing to take lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs. Many are from Iraq, Bhutan, Syria, and Congo. Today, refugees account for a quarter of their workforce. Manager Marty Learn told NBC News, “They’re here to do a job, to make a living for their family. Just like me and you.”

Positive impact, but risky business

By getting jobs, refugees can not only meet their basic needs but also contribute to the countries to which they flee. Refugees provide a major economic boost to the United States, paying more in taxes than they consume in public benefits, and filling jobs in service industries where employers are scratching to find hires, according to the federal government. The New York Times reported on an unreleased study from the Department of Health and Human Services that found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. The report — which the Times says was completed in late July but never publicly released because it contradicts a central argument made by advocates of deep cuts in refugee totals — found that refugees contributed an estimated $269 billion in revenues to all levels of government between 2005 and 2014 through the payment of federal, state and local taxes.

Companies that make a public effort to hire refugees may face a swift backlash. Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant founder of the yogurt maker Chobani, received death threats because of his work with refugees. Ulukaya employs about 300 refugees from Africa and the Middle East at Chobani. In addition, anti-immigrant factions called for a Starbucks boycott after the company’s refugee hiring pledge.

Refugee population are sliding in the US.

The result is that “many employers do not see an immediate business case for hiring refugees or asylum seekers,” noted a 2016 joint report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation and the UN Refugee Agency. And when they do, “particularly among larger employers, the main motivation for employing refugees is currently corporate social responsibility, rather than meeting labour needs.”

But integrating refugees into a local economy is tricky. Asylum seekers often face significant barriers when looking for a job. They have limited skills in the local language, and may face racial persecution. Research suggests that getting a job quickly increases the chance of successful integration into their new community.

Tech plays a key role

Technology could play an important role in resettlement. A team of researchers at Stanford University, ETH Zurich and Dartmouth College has come up with a system they believe can vastly improve the job prospects of newly settled refugees.

Outlined in a paper published in the journal Science, this data-driven algorithm learns how to allocate displaced people to where they are likely to find jobs. While still only a model, the researchers believe it could boost the likelihood of employment for each family by up to 70 percent.

Business and social leaders who hire refugees may feel like they are swimming upstream against a very strong political current. But creating a culture shift that recognizes and empowers vulnerable people who have been displaced should be encouraged, no matter the potential political costs.

This story was published as part of Reinvent’s Future of Work series, underwritten by Intuit.