This program found a unique solution to two of Nebraska’s problems: a labor shortage and refugees in need of work

March 21, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Arabic/Kurdish manufacturing class
Amir Waly and his assistant teach the students how to read a tape measure at the manufacturing class, taking place in a former mosque. The students were all given their own sets of tools to become familiar with them before applying for manufacturing jobs. LMC will stay in touch with all of the students throughout the process. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

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Amir Waly stands in front of a makeshift classroom with 20 adult students. Not one chair is empty in the mosque-turned-school in north Lincoln. Waly takes one final look at his PowerPoint presentation. He is about to start teaching entry-level manufacturing completely in Arabic and Kurdish.

Waly’s first guest speaker for this series of classes is a recruiter from Kawasaki. She greets the class in English and jumps into her own presentation.

“Today I just wanted to talk about the types of jobs we offer at Kawasaki,” she paused.

Waly then interpreted to Arabic, then gestured to his assistant to interpret to Kurdish.

This class is the first of its kind in Lincoln. Chloe Higgins, the workforce development project administer with the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development, coordinates the classes. She does this through the Lincoln Manufacturing Council (LMC), a coalition including eighteen manufacturing employers who focus on future workforce development. It also includes ten community/non-manufacturing partners. Higgins said these classes create a way to connect refugees to good- paying jobs while also addressing the manufacturing labor shortage.

“There are a number of talent pools in Lincoln specifically that are really unreached,” she said. “And one of those talent pools is immigrant and refugee populations.”

Waly’s class is made up mostly of refugees from the Middle East. In most cases, this is the first time they’ve been exposed to a pathway to help them enter the U.S. workforce.

Refugees like Yusra Taha hope this class will open opportunities for her and her son. Taha, a single mom of a 12-year-old boy, came from Iraq five months ago. She had initially wanted a job in the school system, but it was difficult due to the language barrier. She doesn’t yet speak much English, which is a requirement for many jobs in education.

"I am participating to learn more skills to apply for jobs, and to have more opportunities, and I wanted and needed more skills to learn,” she said in Arabic. “My son and I are going through difficult situations. We have already had four difficult months."

Amir Waly teaches the Arabic/Kurdish manufacturing class
A Kawasaki recruiter visits the first Arabic/Kurdish entry-level manufacturing course on Sunday Feb. 4, 2024. She discussed with the students benefits, pay and hours, with brief pauses in between to allow for Waly and his assistant to interpret. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

Instructor Amir Waly took the class in English when he moved from Iraq after serving the U.S military. He said classes like this are like a shortcut for new arrivals to the country.

“I, myself went through a lot of struggles, because I wasn’t able to find a good advisor or someone who would tell me what I need to do. If I met someone like myself in 2008 or 2009, I may have a different position today,” he said.

Waly’s dream had been to be a professor at a university following his military service, but he found it difficult to navigate the system fast enough and quickly became exhausted by the effort.

Instead, he found a different way to serve his community. Waly uses his multilingual abilities helping others with a similar life experience as an adult skills coordinator with Lincoln Literacy, a nonprofit that offers language support services to immigrants, refugees and anyone who wants to improve their literacy in the area. That’s how he got the teaching gig for the manufacturing class.

To help market the class, Waly went to the local mosque and spread the word throughout the Islamic community. There was so much interest, some applicants had to be assigned to the waiting list once the 20 spots were taken.

“One of the big issues that immigrants and refugees face is finding a good job, finding a job that can help them to be able to pay their rent and bills,” Waly said. “And working with these [manufacturing] companies, of course, it’s going to provide a good income for the family. And then in return, it’s going to help the companies to have less shortage.”

The classes offer free transportation to and from sessions and free childcare through Lincoln Literacy. The students are also offered a meal and a $250 supported service payment for their time.

An entry to manufacturing

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, as of last month, more than 65% of manufacturing companies said attracting and retaining employees was their number-one challenge. And for Nebraska, this hits especially hard since manufacturing is the second largest economic driver.

At the same time, Nebraska is receiving an influx of refugees. For the past ten years, the state has led the country in refugee arrivals per capita. In 2024, Lincoln is expected to resettle the most refugees in the state.

“We have a huge population and a lot of those individuals do not have access or the knowledge to navigate the job market,” Higgins said. “So we created these programs and especially increased access to those populations, so that they have an easy path into employment that they might not have otherwise.”

Chloe Higgins and Amir Waly prepare for class
Chloe Higgins (left) prepares the student notebooks with help from instructor Amir Waly (right) for the first Arabic/Kurdish entry-level manufacturing course through LMC on Sunday Feb. 4, 2024. “We’re trying to create these opportunities that are just a really easy pathway into what we believe is a really stable, high paying, growth-facilitating career,” Higgins said. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

Lincoln Literacy Executive Director Bryan Seck is one of the co-founders of the LMC, along with Diane Temme, CEO of TMCO, Kawasaki Corporate Manager Jim Townsend and the CEO of Bison Inc. Nick Cusick.

Seck said typically, Lancaster County sees 10,000-12,000 open jobs all the time and with a low 2.4% unemployment rate, that can put manufacturers in a tough spot.

“When I go out and I talk to businesses, what I hear them say is ‘I’m struggling to find people who want to work.’ And I assure you, that people who are getting here want to,” Seck said.

One of those manufacturers looking to hire is Kawasaki—they make the subway cars in New York City and Washington D.C., the plane doors for Boeing cargo planes and of course, sports vehicles.

“It’s been a struggle recruiting people. So we’ve had to look at, you know, I hate the term, but you know, think out of the box,” said Kevin Mattran, the training administrator.

Mattran helped write the original curriculum for the entry-level manufacturing courses.

“We’ve been trying to create a soft place to land and provide opportunities for people to support their family,” he added. “If it wasn’t for the people from Afghanistan, the people from Ukraine, the people from Mexico and South America that we have working here, I don’t know how we’d keep the doors open.”

A soft place to land

And that thinking outside of the box to attract those potential future employees has had a “tremendous effect,” according to Mattran. The first non-English manufacturing class was offered in Ukrainian in August 2022. Kawasaki hired several of those graduates. Organizers hope to plan another Ukrainian course.

Eugene Korol and Alla Polishchuk stand with the Ukrainian flag
Eugene Korol (left) and Alla Polishchuk (right) pose for a photo at Kawasaki on Wed. March 6, 2024. Polishchuk points to the Ukrainian flag she has on her bag. It reminds her of the kindness of strangers: one day, a man at the grocery store stopped her after seeing the flag to ask if she was Ukrainian. When she replied yes, he asked if there was any way to help her. She politely declined, telling him she had a job, but she said she was touched by the generosity. (Photo by Fatima Naqi/Nebraska Public Media News)

Alla Polishchuk now works as a line worker at Kawasaki. She fled her home in western Ukraine when Russia invaded two years ago. She left her son and most of her family there, and it was a struggle living day to day alone, in a new country, knowing her family could be at risk at home. She said she felt depressed and decided to take the class to keep herself busy.

Polishchuk spoke through an interpreter: “Alla is saying that job saved her life and that she really likes to be in the community and spend time with the people, that gets her mind off of the current situation in Ukraine, so she really likes the community and stay in touch with the community.”

Polishchuk’s interpreter, Eugene Korol, is also from Ukraine, but came to Nebraska about 25 years ago. He was Polishchuk’s instructor for the Ukrainian manufacturing class and is currently a general foreman in the production welding department at Kawasaki. Korol said it’s been a rewarding experience for him to help both his company and fellow Ukrainians.

“I really enjoy helping people from Ukraine and like I said, That's my people. That's where I came from. So it's really good, feels good,” he said.

Kawasaki offers English class for employees as one of its development opportunities, which could help people like Yusra Taha gain English language skills and open a pathway for her to work in her dream job at a school.

The last day of both the Ukrainian class and the Arabic/Kurdish class is Job Fair Day. Amir Waly and other interpreters helped the graduates apply for jobs with the manufacturers, including Kawasaki—where they’ll be considered for direct hire with their LMC graduation certificate. LMC saw a record number of graduates from the Arabic/Kurdish class: every student graduated, making it the most successful manufacturing course LMC has ever hosted.

Nebraska Public Media's Fatima Naqi assisted with this story.