As a Human Resources person, I used to do hiring for a warehouse. One day four Somalian men came in to apply for jobs. Their story is one of cultural differences and the obstacles facing new immigrants. (More)

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There are often legitimate debates about what a job really requires. I was briefly persuaded that perhaps a person did not need to read English to work in a warehouse. I hired a Latino who could not read English. A customer had ordered one $99 laser pointer. This hard working non-reader shipped him one box which had 100 laser pointers in it. Oops. The nice customer called and returned the other 99 pointers and we gave him his for free. Reading the shipping orders accurately was important.

The four Somalians had another approach to applying for jobs. By this time we had simple tests for reading that all applicants had to pass. The first man carefully explained to me as they gave their names, “I can read and write English very well.”

The next man said, “I do the numbers. I am good at math.”

The third one said, “I am very good with maps and the bus schedules. I will get us here on time.”

I forget the fourth man’s special skill but he had one. They had carefully put themselves together as a team that would have all the skills an employer would need. The reader explained that he had read that American companies liked good teamwork.

“Good point,” I told him “but I can only hire people that each have all the skills the job requires. I can’t guarantee that you could work next to each other because we are hiring for the holiday season and we move people around based on the volume.”

This discussion went on for a bit. They explained their culture of community to me and I loved it. I learned a lot listening to them. For all our talk about teamwork, we are not that kind of a work culture in most places. I then gave them information on where they could sign up for free ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and encouraged them to return when they could each pass the tests.

Reading is not just a problem for immigrants. We had Americans with high school diplomas not pass the reading tests. Applicants also had to pass a test lifting 75 pounds repeatedly and a drug test. I can relate to not having welfare recipients take drugs tests but one stoned guy driving an expensive forklift into a post and getting hurt made that a no brainer for our hiring process. And, if you’re wondering we gave them to all applicants for every job.

Unemployment was very low when I had my job. I have little sympathy for people who say that ‘other people’ ought to just “get a job.” They have no idea, now with higher unemployment what hurdles people face.

The Latino was made a janitor and sent off to ESL classes. He learned to read and write English well enough to return to the warehouse. He also passed the citizenship test and all of HR and his supervisors went to his swearing-in at the state fair.