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‘We couldn’t operate without them’: AmerisourceBergen invests in hiring immigrants

The Columbus Dispatch

‘We couldn’t operate without them’: AmerisourceBergen invests in hiring immigrants

Bineta Ngaido, left, helps new employee Jacqueline Muziranenge, right, with her wristband during an employee training session at pharmaceutical distributor AmerisourceBergen. The company is working with the Somali Community Association and Jewish Family Services to hire area refugees such as Muziranenge, who is from Congo.

On the Far South Side of Columbus sits a distribution center that has invested tens of thousands of dollars in hiring and retaining new American employees, a model one local leader hopes will catch on with other companies as well.

AmerisourceBergen, a pharmaceutical distribution company with two buildings in Lockbourne, partnered with Jewish Family Services (JFS) locally to recruit, hire, onboard and retain former refugees and immigrants.

“We couldn’t operate without them,” Kurt Bunnell, vice president of operations for regional warehouse management for the company, said of its new American hires, who represent 41% of the company’s local workforce.

AmerisourceBergen has hired more than 100 refugees and immigrants locally since it started hosting job fairs in mid-August through the partnership, which began in July.

The partnership was created after the director of operations for AmerisourceBergen’s Columbus distribution centers reached out to Tariq Tarey, director of refugee social services at JFS, because the company was struggling to find employees due to a pandemic-related labor shortage affecting many corporations.

The social services agency works to find employment for refugees and immigrants who settle locally, and Tarey started working with AmerisourceBergen by first taking a tour of its facilities and talking to the company about investing in making its workplace a welcoming place for immigrants.

From the beginning, AmerisourceBergen officials were open to doing what they could to make sure new Americans could be successful there, Tarey said.

They welcomed Tarey and others from JFS in to help train new employees in their native languages, put in a prayer room for employees, hung up flags from employees’ countries to try and create a sense of welcome and had other employees trained in cultural competency, Tarey said.

Flags representing the nationalities of employees line a wall inside AmerisourceBergen. New American hires represent 41% of the company's local workforce.

Then, when transportation turned out to be an issue for many new hires, the company funded a shuttle to pick them up in their neighborhoods.

AmerisourceBergen also hired a former JFS employee, Clarissa Manirakiza, as its senior operations training specialist. She’s a former refugee herself — originally from Rwanda — speaks six languages and helps onboard new hires.

“They have removed all barriers so the community has access to them,” Tarey said. “The idea, really, is to make sure the new American community has access to jobs that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible.”

Becoming self-sufficient

New Americans, including immigrants and refugees, are sometimes an untapped part of the workforce because companies don’t take the time to understand different cultures or put measures in place to address language barriers and other needs to retain employees, Tarey said.

But AmerisourceBergen had hosted job fairs in the broader community and got few people — sometimes none — to show up to apply, Bunnell said. That’s why they looked to other ways to find employees, like reaching out to the local refugee and immigrant population.

After finding out what AmerisourceBergen needed, Tarey reached out to Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, to set up job fairs.

Each Thursday for several weeks, those interested flooded the first floor of the Northeast Side community association offices to apply for jobs, be interviewed and get drug tested on site. They could sign an offer letter the same day.

Omar, president of the community association, helps the new American community with finding many resources, such as rental assistance, legal help, housing and more. But he said employment is what the community really needs.

“We don’t want to remain a handout,” he said. “Employment is economic development. We’d like to become self-sufficient.”

Tarey hopes to use this model with other companies who are willing to invest a little more upfront in order to gain longevity in their workforce. The partnership is ongoing as Tarey and JFS help to troubleshoot any issues that may arise, he said.

“The return investment is amazing,” he said, of working with new American employees. “(Companies) do the smaller things such as cultural competency, workplace transparency, infrastructure and training them well for success, (and it) will result in such a high retention.”

Preparing to hire

Clarissa Manirakiza, senior operations training specialist at AmerisourceBergen, answers questions during a new employee orientation at the pharmaceutical distributor. A former refugee, she speaks six languages and helps onboard new hires.

Eric DeMuth, who works locally in human resources for AmerisourceBergen, said that its workforce has always been “pretty diverse.” He said the company has hosted English-as-a-second-language classes locally and offered resume-building workshops.

“We realized with a large group coming in all at once, we needed more support.”

The hope is that with Manirakiza working with new hires and existing employees, the employees will be happy and stay at the company, DeMuth said.

Manirakiza has been at many of the hiring events and now works to translate paperwork that new employees are signing. She highlights the importance of safety in the workplace and shows them around the warehouse.

She’s also often called to the warehouse floor to help translate for employees and points out those on each shift who also can help translate or be a point of contact for new hires.