How Afghan SIVs Can Help Stem Multifamily Labor Shortage

Afghans who hold Special Immigration Visas offer many of the competencies that are in high demand.

Career workshops help newly arrived Afghans prepare for American-style job searches. Images courtesy of No One Left Behind /San Diego Chapter

Aminullah Khalili was ready to call it a day. He’d been at work at a U.S. compound in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a Fluor maintenance carpenter when an explosion rocked the site.  It destroyed his car before he had a chance to reach it, but this was not Khalili’s first encounter with terrorism.

“I had been followed by insurgents and asked where I worked so many times,” the experienced construction worker recalls, adding, “That is why I knew I may get in trouble and applied for an SIV.”

SIV stands for Special Immigration Visa, a State Department program created in 2009 to bring Afghans endangered by their work with U.S. military units, government partners and contractors to the United States. The rigorous health and security requirements to earn one of these scarce visas can take months or years to complete. Only about 16,000 had been issued when the U.S. left Afghanistan last year, according to the International Rescue Committee, leaving 18,000 Afghans in the application process at the time and many more who had yet to start.

Khalili, an experienced remodeler with electrical, plumbing, HVAC and carpentry experience, was fortunate. He was able to emigrate to San Diego in October 2017 after seven years with Fluor and five with KBR. His work with two American companies was helpful in his first search here. “I was familiar with the work culture and environment,” he noted.

This is true for many of the SIVs, as they’re often called. They come to the U.S. job market with language skills, cultural comfort, resilience and maturity. They also come from a DIY-oriented culture in Afghanistan. As another Afghan pointed out: “If something breaks back home, you fix it yourself.” Even SIVs who lack Khalili’s experience can bring handyman skills to an apartment management company.

Al Malouf Assad, principal of Hanken Cono Assad & Co., a La Mesa, Calif.-based real estate investment and management company with rentals throughout San Diego County, hired Khalili in February 2018. What caught his attention was the worker’s diverse experience.

“In Afghanistan, Amin built many structures on base ranging from barricades to hospital additions,” Assad commented. “He also had experience running small projects and teams. He is always very personable and professional with our residents and has received praise for his skill and attentiveness.”

Khalili’s direct supervisor is a veteran who’s happy to repay the sacrifices Afghans made to keep his unit safe during deployments. He advises prospective employers: “In considering hiring SIVs, you will be faced with some uncertainties. You may wonder: Are there issues with a language barrier? Will I have to deal with cultural boundaries? I can tell you, based on my experience, that these issues are small or non-existent. The rewards far outweigh any challenges you may have.”

Variety of Skills

Rebecca Neuwirth, executive vice president of Upwardly Global, a national nonprofit focused on employment for immigrant and refugee professionals, knows this well. Her organization has helped 1,000 Afghans find work since the U.S. left Afghanistan last year. Approximately 20 percent of them have engineering, construction and building backgrounds, she shared.

There are also SIVs with computer science and business-oriented degrees. One participant of a San Diego career program had been studying accounting when he was recruited to work as an interpreter for the U.S. military. While out on patrol with Marine special operations units, he’d read his textbooks with a flashlight app during lights-out time. He’s currently working as an accountant in San Diego.

Among the many electrical engineers with degrees and experience was one young professional with a focus on solar power. He had invented a solar-powered car back home, but without financial resources or an entrepreneurial culture in Afghanistan, he wasn’t able to take his talent further there. Imagine what someone that innovative could bring to a U.S. employer, especially one wanting to enhance its sustainability?

“We are in the process of onboarding over 600 additional Afghan applicants,” Neuwirth noted.  The group offers them and immigrants from other nations training, mentorship and employer connections. “We’ve had retention rates of over 85 percent after one year of employment,” she proudly shared.

Most of the SIVs have spouses and children who immigrated to the U.S. with them. Their wives also tend to be degreed professionals—often former teachers or nurses in Afghanistan. Those are fields open to women. The workforce nonprofits have created customer service workshops that help those with English language skills transition easily into the job market here. These spouses can be an asset in rental offices, especially in communities with growing Afghan populations.

Saied Alavi, managing director of construction company MAREK’s Houston Division observed, “The industry must do more to interact with immigrant communities in a way that creates progress for them to achieve their career dreams and (encourages) potential employers to hire qualified talent.”

His firm connected with an Afghan interpreter through a local nonprofit. “The SIV joined our company without construction experience and was placed in our craft education program.” This structured, work-based learning model is broadly endorsed by the industry and could be adapted by other nonprofits and employers, he said.

Using this trainee’s interpreting skills and contacts, “we were able to recruit and hire more than 20 young Afghan refugees. Most spoke English, were hard workers and adapted well to American work culture.” MAREK incorporated cultural adjustments for these workers, including arrangements for noon prayer, to help them feel comfortable.

Alavi sees connecting employers and potential SIV staff working best by collaborating with nonprofits and trade organizations like Associated Builders and Contractors that can provide specialized training, apprenticeship, management education and overall support. “No one group can tackle this complex issue solo,” he concludes.

As Upwardly Global’s Neuwirth observed, “When there is openness in hiring and support for immigrants and refugees, companies and society win, too.”

With a critical labor shortage exacerbated by the pandemic, skilled workers who served our troops and contractors in Afghanistan as well as these SIVs can serve the multifamily industry here well too.

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC, wellness design contributor and award-winning author of Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020) was a San Diego chapter leader of No One Left Behind from 2016 to 2019.

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