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Dedicated trainees; Company helps Hmong workers overcome language, educational barriers

By: TANNETTE JOHNSON-ELIE of the Journal Sentinel staff, April 9, 2002 Tuesday

For Hmong immigrant Cha Xiong, life in America presents challenges not unlike those he and others left when they made harrowing escapes from their war-ravaged home country.

"Life back in the homeland is much harder. But being here, not knowing the language presents barriers," says Xiong, a native of Laos who migrated to the United States in 1991.

"It's a new war."

The lack of adequate schooling, language and cultural differences, and limited job skills pose huge barriers in the workplace for Hmong and other immigrants.

One local company, Mechanical Industries, a machining and fabricating company at 8900 N. 51st St., seems to be going the extra mile with a training program designed to meet the cultural, language and technical needs of its Hmong workers, who make up about 20% of the company's 110 employees.

The company offered the training so it could keep pace with technology and tougher quality standards in the manufacturing industry, says Carolyn Tomatz, human resources manager for Mechanical Industries.

"Many Hmong immigrants are willing to work, but lack of schooling is hard to overcome," Tomatz says. "The Hmong population is our largest to bridge for the quality systems that we have to pass.

"Many times, Hmong workers are let go because they can't read or do math."

After Laos fell to communist forces, tens of thousands of Hmong migrated to the United States as refugees, and many found homes in Wisconsin. The state now has the country's third-largest Hmong population, and more than one-fifth of the state's Hmong immigrants live in Milwaukee.

Many companies tapped people in the Hmong community because of their strong work ethic and willingness to take jobs at lower wages than most Americans.

This is especially the case in manufacturing. As skilled baby boomers retire, manufacturers seek replacements from growing immigrant populations such as the Hmong, according to the 2001 Skills Gap Report by the National Association of Manufacturers.

Xiong, for instance, makes $9 an hour as a screw machine operator at Mechanical Industries, where he has been employed for two years. It's a decent wage for a job that didn't require much English language skills.

But as more companies like Mechanical Industries require workers to perform different tasks, English language skills are a must, says Peter Jordan, a workplace coordinator for the Indo-Chinese Learning Center in Milwaukee.

"Part of what we're seeing is a shift from traditional jobs where you do the same thing repetitively. Someone with limited English certainly could exist in that environment and really shine," Jordan says.

"What's happening is that so many companies are going to a cell organization, where each person ends up doing different kinds of jobs, so they have to be able to read more, write more and document more, and that's where we're seeing problems."

Training program

Hmong workers at Mechanical Industries are trained in English, basic reading, shop math, blueprint reading and metrology -- the science of weights and measures. The workers are assisted with terms they will need to know to pass quality inspections. The company will eventually offer the training to all of its production workers.

Global Staffing Resources Inc., a Milwaukee employment, consulting and training company, developed the training program for Mechanical Industries.

Jeff Yang and his wife, Judy Xiong, no relation to Cha Xiong, launched Global Staffing in 1995 to help bridge the jobs gap in the Hmong community.

"We knew that sooner or later we'd have to move into this arena (training)," says Judy Xiong.

"We know that we have a good population out there that can do good work, but they don't have the training. It's a Catch-22.

"They need the training to advance in companies, and yet they don't have time to go to school because of family demands. A lot of them can't afford to go back to school. You have to be creative in how you reach them."

For many companies, it's simple economics: It's much cheaper to train someone you know is going to show up for work, than to have to start fresh with someone new, who may not have the necessary job skills.

In this regard, Mechanical Industries is ahead of the game. But the training doesn't end with the workers.

It's important that employers develop a company culture, where people have respect for other cultures, Tomatz says.

"It's understanding the culture. For example, in the Hmong culture, women don't address men straight on, and they don't speak out, so it's assumed that they don't know the work," Tomatz says. "You're bridging a lot of cultural differences."

That pays dividends in the long run. When people feel that their employer is willing to invest in them and give them the tools they need to assimilate into society, they produce more, which helps a company's profitability.

Just ask Xiong.

"I like that I can help my employer," he says. "Before it was very hard. I didn't know the measurement and decimals. The training has been helpful. I would like to continue my education. I want to go as far as I can go."


Tannette Johnson-Elie writes about small and minority-owned businesses and diversity issues for the Journal Sentinel. She can be reached at (414) 223-5172, or by e-mail at