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Some Nebraska manufacturers provide training to migrants to address labor shortage

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Labor shortages are affecting companies across the U.S. The National Association of Manufacturers says for many of its members, attracting and retaining employees is the No. 1 challenge. In Nebraska, some companies are addressing the problem by focusing on newly arrived refugees and migrants and going the extra mile to get them job-ready. Kassidy Arena with Nebraska Public Media has this report.

KASSIDY ARENA: Nebraska may be best known for its corn fields and football, but it's also the place where workers build subway cars for big cities, sports vehicles, and even basketball hoops. Manufacturing is big in Nebraska. It's the second-largest industry, behind agriculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANUFACTURING MACHINERY)

ARENA: But it's been hard to find people to fill those manufacturing jobs, especially in a state where the unemployment rate is 2.5%. Kawasaki is one of the state's major employers. Kevin Mattran is the training administrator.

KEVIN MATTRAN: It's been a struggle recruiting people, so we've had to look at - I hate the term, but, you know, think out of the box.

ARENA: So now, in Lincoln, Neb., there's a program of entry-level manufacturing classes that are taught in the native language of newcomers.

ALLA POLISHCHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ARENA: Alla Polishchuk took those classes and is now a line worker at Kawasaki. She fled Ukraine when Russia invaded two years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Alla is saying the job saved her life, and then she really likes to be in a community and spend time with the people. That gets her mind off of the current situation in Ukraine.

ARENA: These are not typical ESL, or English as a second language, efforts. The coordinator of these classes, Chloe Higgins, says they are instead an effort to address the city's labor shortage and connect refugees to good-paying jobs they typically might not have access to.

CHLOE HIGGINS: There are a number of talent pools in Lincoln specifically that are really unreached, and one of those talent pools is immigrant and refugee populations.

ARENA: Just under 2 million people live in Nebraska. More than 7% are foreign-born, and in recent years, Nebraska has led the country in refugee arrivals per capita. Many are from the Middle East.

ALICIA TEINERT: Today, I just wanted to talk about the types of jobs that we offer at Kawasaki.

ARENA: Recruiter Alicia Teinert is a guest speaker for this class. The instructor, Amir Waly, interprets in Arabic.

AMIR WALY: (Speaking Arabic).

ARENA: And he gestures to his assistant, who begins speaking in Kurdish.

UNIDENTIFIED ASSISTANT: (Speaking Kurdish).

ARENA: Refugees like Yusra Taha hope this class will open opportunities for her and her son. She's a single mom from Iraq and says language barriers have made finding work difficult.

YUSRA TAHA: (Through interpreter) I am participating to learn more skills to apply for jobs. My son and I are going through difficult situations. We have already had four difficult months.

ARENA: Teacher Waly says when he arrived from Iraq, the class was in English. He says it's a valuable shortcut for participants to learn about work in their own language.

WALY: I myself went through a lot of struggles because I wasn't able to find a good adviser or someone who would tell me what I need to do. If I meet someone like myself in 2008 or 2009, I may have a different position today.

ARENA: In the class, the students pepper Waly with questions. They want to prepare for the last day of class, Job Fair Day. Waly and other interpreters will help the graduates apply for jobs with the manufacturers, where they'll be considered for direct hire.

For NPR News, I'm Kassidy Arena, Lincoln, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kassidy Arena