Marsh's Refugee Employment Earns Accolades

Bill Bumgarner of Marsh Furniture Co. opened his company's doors to more than 60 international refugees seeking employment and a new life in the United States.

By Andy Jenkins
Bill Bumgarner, human resources manager for Marsh Furniture.

The employees who make up Marsh Furniture Co.'s 700-person workforce come from all walks of life. Some walks, however, have been a little more traumatic than others. This is certainly so in the case of the 60 refugees Marsh employs, all of whom came to the United States with stories of personal tragedy and religious, political or racial persecution.

For more than nine years, Bill Bumgarner, Human Resources manager for Marsh Furniture, has been working to hire international refugees, and to help them build a new life in a new land. Just recently, Bumgarner and Marsh Furniture were recognized by the North Carolina Refugee Program as a 2005 Outstanding Refugee Employer and Volunteer. The award gives recognition to the company's long-term humanitarian efforts.

Marsh Furniture, a stock cabinet manufacturer located in High Point, NC, employs refugees from across the globe. Rarely bringing woodworking experience with them, refugees are typically hired for entry-level jobs, and often advance to higher-paying positions with increasing responsibility, Bumgarner says.

Bumgarner has personally established a strong relationship with World Relief, an organization providing refugee assistance, and its office in High Point. Along with World Relief, Bumgarner spread the stories and plights of the refugees resettling in North Carolina.

"These people have been persecuted and discriminated against everywhere that they have been," Bumgarner says. "The deal with us is that we made them feel welcome. They have settled in this area, they are valued workers and their co-workers have accepted them."

Bumgarner recently talked with Wood & Wood Products about his company's award-winning refugee employment program.

Wood & Wood Products: How did Marsh first begin employing refugees settling in the United States?

: In 1996, Jim Marsh, one of the owners of Marsh Furniture, was contacted by a local physician about a refugee named Eddie Salcin that she was sponsoring. Jim gave me a call and referred Eddie to me. Eddie came in 91?2 years ago from war-torn Bosnia, and started out tailing a saw on our second shift. He has steadily grown with us, and today Eddie optimizes all of our sheet stock with a sophisticated computer program.

We had such a great experience with Eddie that it led me to contact World Relief, a worldwide agency that just happens to have a branch in High Point. I was impressed by Wayne Wingfield, who runs the local branch, and by Scott Kerr, who is an employment specialist with World Relief. It has been a win-win-win partnership.

World Relief provides great people, many of whom have had a very rough life up to the point that they came here. The new employee gets a good job and the chance to advance in responsibility and pay. World Relief is able to help many, many people this way. The group gets involved in situations where there is civil war or genocide occurring in the world, and they reach out to people who are in those situations.

W&WP: How has the addition of nearly 60 refugees affected Marsh's workforce, and the company as a whole?

: This has had a very positive effect on the workforce and the company. The personal tragedy and adversity that many of these people have been through strengthens their faith, resolve and appreciation for a chance at a better life. All of the refugees who have come to us from World Relief have made us a better company. They are positive role models for all of us.

: What does it mean to you to be given an award as an Outstanding Refugee Employer from the North Carolina Refugee Program?

: It is nice to be recognized for something this worthwhile, but the real credit should go to all of the hardworking people that have come to Marsh from Bosnia, the Sudan, Vietnam, the Congo and Ghana. They are so appreciative to have an opportunity, and when you team them up with an already outstanding American workforce, you see good things happen.

W&WP: Typically, do the refugees that you hire come to Marsh with woodworking skills already in place?

: The vast majority do not have woodworking skills in place. We hire many refugees into entry-level jobs and then cross train them in other areas. Most people progress right up the ladder, earning better wages and increased responsibility.

W&WP: Does Marsh have a training program designed specifically for the refugees that you hire?

: No, we do not. The refugees will go through the same orientation and training as anyone we hire goes through. World Relief does a fantastic job of getting them acclimated to the culture in this country. I think that is one of the keys to the program, because this country is very different from what most of them are used to.

W&WP: In cases like these, is the language barrier an issue?

: No, the language barrier is usually not an issue. Most have had English in school and can speak it fluently. Many of the Sudanese employees, for example, can speak four or five languages. They are very intelligent people who have a real thirst for education. Many are enrolled in the local community college, studying a wide variety of topics.

W&WP: Considering the amount of jobs lost in the U.S. furniture industry over the past decade, have you had to respond to concerns that local, unemployed workers are missing out on jobs that Marsh Furniture could have provided to them?

: That was initially a concern. We had some American workers who were uninformed and did make some initial comments when we started this relationship with World Relief almost 10 years ago. We were able to get the word out, by mouth and by company newsletter of what many of the refugees had been through before getting here. I can't promise that we don't have a handful of people that may still feel some resentment, but most people embraced the new faces without hearing their stories, and for the ones who were still somewhat skeptical, learning the stories of hardship that most of the refugees have faced opened a lot of eyes. No one was aware that over 2 million people have died in the conflict going on in the Sudan. Many of us realized that these folks just wanted an opportunity for a better life.

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. The number of employees we have hired through World Relief is less than 8 percent of our total workforce. The majority of people working here and hired here are American. We have picked up good woodworkers from many of the unfortunate plant closings that are going on in our area. There have been more negative comments about a lot of the big names in furniture closing local plants and moving those operations overseas. This area has literally lost thousands of jobs to overseas relocation. We have been fortunate and blessed to be growing and working on full schedules.

W&WP: Can you share a brief story of how a particular refugee has found a home at Marsh?

: Let's use Eddie Salcin. As I mentioned earlier, Eddie came to the United States almost 10 years ago. He never, ever expected a handout from anyone and came over here and worked three jobs for several years. He was then able to reunite with his wife and young daughter who stayed behind in Bosnia while he tried to get them here. At Marsh, he has steadily moved up in pay and responsibility because of his hard work. Eddie is a true example of living the American dream. He owns his own home and cars and does some meaningful work on the side to create income for his family. He is honest, intelligent and he cares.

Eddie now optimizes all of our sheet stock for our panel saws - a very important job. I think that Eddie is no different from any American worker; he loves his family and is willing to work hard so they all can have a better life. He still misses his native Bosnia, but sees that his real opportunity is currently in the United States, and he has made great strides since coming here. This is pretty good for a guy who came here 10 years ago from Bosnia with nothing.

To sit down with any of the people who have come through the World Relief program is fascinating. The stories that they tell are incredible. They all want to be free to live.

W&WP: Can you describe your relationship with World Relief?

: World Relief is the only organization we work through at the present time. They are great people and a great organization. We work with them to line up interviews for applicants. They take care of almost every other need that someone new coming to our country has, especially ensuring that all of the immigration paperwork is in order.

World Relief requires that the folks they help to immigrate to the United States be self-sufficient within six months of arriving here. Refugees are put through a health examination, given secure, temporary housing and provided with transportation. Refugees also attend mandatory English-as-a-second-language classes and classes on getting acclimated to this country.

I would encourage other companies to see if they have a World Relief branch nearby. It has been a great resource for Marsh Furniture Company.


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