Hiring refugees is good for people, good for business, says Stickley CEO

MANLIUS, N.Y. – Skilled labor is hard to come by for American furniture companies making their furniture here in the U.S. In fact, leading domestic manufacturers have referred to it as a top challenge, including Vaughan-Bassett, Century Furniture, Gat Creek, Legends Furniture and others.

To compensate, they’ve raised wages and benefits while reducing overtime. To boost the number of applicants, companies have increased spending on advertising and community spending. Some have worked to create focused outreach at nearby community colleges. Others, like Vanguard Furniture, have set up manufacturing operations in areas it knew were home to a reliable working population.

Stickley, a historic New York high-end furniture manufacturer, went a different route. It began tapping into the large population of refugees living around its hometown.

Image of Aminy I. Audi
Aminy I. Audi

“Our very first hire happened in the early 1980s when our church sponsored a family from Laos,” said Aminy Audi, Stickley CEO. “The congregation was asked if anyone could provide work for the father, and my husband and I immediately offered him a job at the factory. He stayed for 20 years. Since then, we’ve worked with various refugee resettlement groups, including Interfaith Works and Catholic Charities.”

Stickley, founded in 1900 and bought by Audi and her late husband Alfred in 1974, employs around 1,600 people in total. Over the past 40 years, Audi says the company has hired thousands of refugees, today making up nearly 50% of its workforce in Manlius, N.Y., and stretching across 23 nationalities.

Stickley flags
In its cafeteria, Stickley displays the flags of every refugee’s home country.

“To us, it is very much a humanitarian effort, one that Stickley has been practicing for a very long time,” she told Furniture Today. “Not only have we provided stability and opportunity for the refugees we’ve hired, but our family and our Stickley team have been enriched by the experience of knowing and working alongside our international colleagues.

“And yes, it’s also good business. Our home city, Syracuse, N.Y., is a sanctuary city and boasts a large refugee population. It’s a reason other manufacturers come here too, like Micron, when it chose Syracuse as the home for its new $100 billion microchip plant.”

Obviously, there are challenges. It’s tough to get people from such diverse backgrounds to work together cohesively. And, there are language barriers.

Stickley workers cafeteria

“Any time you bring people together, misunderstandings are bound to arise,” Audi said. “Initially there are language barriers or misunderstandings of job requirements, but we overcome them as people get more proficient with the language and as everyone becomes more tolerant and accepting. I’m very proud of the harmony that we have achieved in our workplace.”

Several employees – some of whom are refugees themselves – serve as translators, Audi said.

“They have been on this journey themselves. They know what it is like to leave one’s country and loved ones, arrive in a new country, learn a new language and adjust to a new culture. When we hold information sessions (such as 401K education or benefit enrollment), we conduct meetings in six languages. Our translators are key and play a pivotal role in the onboarding process and beyond.”

If they have a refugee population to pull from, Audi believes other furniture companies should consider it as well.

“This is a wonderful direction, not just for the furniture industry but for any industry,” she said. “It’s a way in which we can all learn from each other and become better citizens of the world. There’s no better way to build bridges of understanding, affirm our common humanity and contribute to world peace.

“It makes me very happy and proud to see these men and women advance in their work, send their children to college, pay taxes and become valued members of their new community. They are the fulfillment of the American dream.”

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