August 11, 2004

What Immigrants Bring to the Table: Family and Respect

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


ROCHESTER, MN -- The night shift at the Schmidt Printing plant in Byron looks like Little Cambodia most times, but even on a Friday afternoon there's a strong Asian flavor on the shop floor.

These names topped the overtime sign-up list last Friday when I stopped by for a visit: Sang, Hassan, Pisoth, PJ, Sem and Sokem. Out on the floor, finishing up 12-hour shifts at the paper folding machines, were Bunna, Peau, Meng and Nisai.

And Sherab Bjorngaard, also at a folding machine, a Tibetan whose parents fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama in 1959, when the Chinese invaded the country. Her parents settled in Bangalore, India, where she grew up. She eventually married a Norwegian fellow and then settled in Rochester, which makes her, you might say, a Tibetan-Indian-Norwegian-American.

It's just another day at Schmidt Printing, a 92-year-old company that has lived through a great many immigrant waves in its history but none, perhaps, as diverse and booming as the one it is living through now. Since the late 1970s, when Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees starting settling in southeast Minnesota, Schmidt has been hiring them -- and continues to do so.

Time and Effort

In 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, more legal immigrants came to Minnesota than in any year since 1982, when large numbers of Hmong and other Southeast Asians settled here. Immigrants from Africa accounted for 70 percent of the increase, with 13,522 total legal immigrants moving into the state during the year, according to Barbara Ronningen of the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Since it began hiring Southeast Asian immigrants, Schmidt has gained a reputation as an employer that's unusually sensitive to the needs of immigrant employees. Especially, of investing time and effort in training at the front end, and reaping rewards in low turnover and high employee loyalty down the line.

Over the past couple of years, interviewing dozens of Hmong, Lao and Cambodian immigrants in the Rochester area, I'd heard the same thing over and over from them -- "Schmidt is a great place to work." Those words are so rarely spoken about any employer by any type of employee -- immigrant or not -- that I had to go see for myself what the company was doing right.

Theresa Whitcome, the company's human relations manager, said the company doesn't have any written policy on immigrant hiring. "What drives our hiring is the core values of the place," she said. "And our core value is to believe in the significance and the potential of every individual."

Company Values

About 15 percent of Schmidt's 425 employees in its Byron and Rochester plants are Asian, she said.

The fact that immigrants often work at entry-level jobs that are often hard to fill with longtime Minnesota residents is, of course, a major reason for the large number of Asian workers at Schmidt Printing. Entry-level production jobs at Schmidt pay $8 to $11 an hour, with more skilled operation jobs paying $9 to $15 an hour.

Still, if a large number of immigrants in entry-level jobs is common in Minnesota, Schmidt's low turnover and golden word of mouth is truly unusual.

So is the forthright gratitude the company publicly acknowledges toward its immigrant employees for making the company what it is today.

"Immigrants helped to shape the values of this company," Whitcome said. In the mid-1990s, with employee morale sagging a bit, the company undertook a top-to-bottom series of conversations, meetings and shared writing that involved every employee, in order to define the company's main values.

Math and Paperwork

Two of the four key values the company settled on -- "family" and "respect" -- are strongly dominant values in most Asian cultures and, as a result, got a fuller discussion and clarification within the company than would have happened without the Asian employees, Whitcome says.

In quick chats on the shop floor, Asian workers said their loyalty to Schmidt was strengthened by its flexibility on issues such as parents taking breaks or leaves to help sick children. They said the company also allows Asian employees to return to Asia to visit families for six or more weeks, with a job waiting for them when they return to Minnesota.

Monica Meng and her partner, Nisai Sath, both from Cambodia, say the company has shown flexibility by encouraging them to work as a team. Monica, having lived in the United States longer, has good English, while Nisai, who's got good calculating skills, still needs to go slow when speaking.

"Nisai's good at math and paperwork, and I'm good at English," Monica said. "Our supervisor gives us the time we need to work as a team."

That sounds like strong core values getting not just lip service, but being put in action. With immigration levels in Minnesota continuing to increase, it sounds like something else as well: just plain smart.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report