Jeffrey Maung, 34, is a finisher. And proud of it.
Inside Schoolhouse Electric’s four-story, century-old brick headquarters in industrial Northwest Portland, Maung takes the housewares company’s signature lamps and furniture pieces and buffs, polishes, cleans, and packages them for shipment or for sale in the retail space on the ground floor. In the evenings and on weekends, he studies the Bible or volunteers for the Oregon Myanmar Christian Church in Northeast Portland. Eighteen months ago, his wife gave birth to a daughter at Oregon Health & Science University. Maung lives the quiet life of a Portland maker; his future holds the traditional promise of the American working class.
Not so long ago, things were different for Maung. Born in Myanmar—he still calls it by its old name, “Burma”—he fled that country’s repressive government in 2000, escaping to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“It was a little bit of trouble in my country,” he says. “We like democracy and we like freedom. Our government is military.”
Kuala Lumpur offered more opportunity, but no comforts. An illegal immigrant, Maung was always on high alert for patrols and raids. When caught, he paid bribes of 500 to 1,000 ringgit (roughly $115 to $225). For nine years, he made money in the sprawling metropolis’s Chinatown, hawking knockoff Gucci belts and fake luxury watches. At night, he’d smoke and drink with his fellow Burmese exiles in his apartment—escapes that took over his life.
In 2009, Maung found God, saving him, he says, from “doing bad things.” And in 2014, he found Portland, landing here as a refugee after three years of waiting and red tape. Ten days after he arrived, with the ink on their immigration forms still drying, he and his wife attended an open-house party hosted by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO. One of the event’s other invitees: Andrew Bohl, Schoolhouse Electric’s director of operations.
“After the party, I leave from the house, and Andrew followed me and said, ‘Hey Jeffrey!’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes sir?’ And he said, ‘Are you working right now? You want to work with me?’ And he gave me his business card.”
Bohl’s presence at the party was no accident. Since 2004, Schoolhouse has hired about 100 refugees and immigrants through its partnership with IRCO. Brought aboard in 2004 to get what was then a small boutique lighting company’s manufacturing operation off the ground, Bohl saw the program as a practical solution to a real problem: finding people with experience and professionalism to fill entry-level positions.
“You’ve got people who have job experience and qualifications who are in the entry-level job market,” says Bohl. “You can go out and get a lot of experience and gravitas in people that are more mature workers.”
Schoolhouse Electric’s owner, Brian Faherty, explains: “Our manufacturing is fairly light, and we were having trouble finding skilled workers who even wanted to work in those career paths. We were doing it because it was an important part of our community, but we were also doing it because we needed the workers.”
Last year, IRCO helped some 1,500 refugees, people with special immigrant visas, and human trafficking victims find jobs at roughly 1,000 companies in the Portland area. The organization is on track for a 70 percent placement rate. Mo Sangsam, who heads up IRCO’s employment program for newly arrived immigrants, credits its success to full-time job coaches who not only screen candidates for language and math skills, but also guide immigrants through interviews, job searches, onboarding, and retention follow-ups. Schoolhouse, she says, has a higher standard for candidates than some.
“We’ve had good success with them,” says Sangsam. “Schoolhouse is a very good company.”
From its origins in lighting, Schoolhouse has branched out into furniture, kitchenware, art, and office accoutrements, meanwhile crafting a small but chic brand that emphasizes quality workmanship. About one quarter of current employees are refugees, their points of origin shifting with geopolitical circumstances: people from ex-Soviet Asia, ethnic Russians from Kyrgyzstan, Turks from Uzbekistan, Cubans, Southern Burmese, Northern Burmese, Iraqis, lately people from various African countries, and Afghans.
“Some of the people come off the savanna,” Bohl says, “or from small towns that didn’t have manufacturing. It’s a wide group. Not only are they adapting to all that, but they have to work, and work with a bunch of people they haven’t worked with before. Often, they’re not coming from diversity, and this might be the most diverse experience they’ve had.”
Almost all newcomers, like Maung, start on the second floor: assembly, where lights, lamps, hardware, and furniture are fitted together. It’s an entry-level position, but requires critical thinking and, unlike on a traditional assembly line, the ability to put together entire products, start to finish.
The work, at the beginning, can be menial, but success stories abound. Aziz Khaddoori, 54, worked for 12 years as an electromechanical engineer for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad. When ISIS arose, he, his wife, and his two sons came to the United States as refugees. The State Department dropped them here in Portland; IRCO connected him to Schoolhouse, where he started as an assembler. In less than two years, Bohl promoted Khaddoori to the engineering department, where he turns new product designs into reality, creating templates and assembly instructions.
“It’s engineering,” he says, shrugging off comparisons to his previous job, which involved water systems and habitats. “You have to put what’s in your mind on a paper, and show it to another person. To show it and understand it.”
Likewise, Shatha Ali, 32, escaped Baghdad in 2010, as her then-husband became a target for working as a US Army interpreter. Ali started in assembly, but her degree in chemical engineering clearly qualified her for more. She became an assistant production manager, then a supply planner, managing and purchasing materials and analyzing sales and demand. For Bohl, Ali’s and Khaddoori’s successes are the point of the program.
“The first person I hired [in 2004] is now my head engineer,” he says. “He was just an 18-year-old who had worked at a gas station in Russia, and had very low English ability. Now he’s got his own department and is a manager.”
For some, Schoolhouse offers a foothold into a new country. When Maung finishes studying to become a pastor, he doesn’t know where he might end up. “My future is my ministry,” he says. “Maybe God will send me to another place. I will take care of other people.” But for others, stability is key.
“I don’t like change,” says Khaddoori. “When I stick to one thing, I stick to it for a long time. Never for a short period.”
What the future of Schoolhouse’s assembly floor holds is not clear. With the company’s rapid growth—it’s expanded from 24 employees in 2011 to 144 now—and a need for higher-level English skills, Bohl and his managers must rely more on the local hiring pool to fill positions. And with a partial version of President Trump’s travel ban in place (for now), refugees are not having a great time.
“As a company, we value immigrants and refugees, not just as a resource for this company but as a resource for this country,” Bohl says. “Things are undefined at the moment. The particular concerns about Mexicans and Muslims hits us in the heart. We have Mexicans, and we have Muslims, and they shouldn’t be prevented from coming here.”