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Retail’s labour shortage is causing big problems for the industry in the run up to Christmas as customer demand soars and businesses struggle to fill positions. But a University of Sydney professor believes a simple solution lies in better integration of refugees into the workforce. 

“In many industries, Australia is in the middle of a labour shortage. At the same time, throughout the pandemic, many refugees have been urgently searching for work but coming up short,” associate professor Betina Szkudlarek from The University of Sydney Business School explained.

“Refugees are a very diverse cohort. Their professional experience and qualifications are equally diversified. With the range of options within the retail industry, many refugees could find a job that aligns with their previous experience or provides an opportunity to launch a new career path.” 

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, only a quarter of refugees who arrive in Australia find employment within two years. Szkudlarek says many are held back because of a lack of contacts, a lack of understanding the recruitment process and because foreign qualifications are not always recognised.

Szkudlarek’s research shows that once settled into the workplace, refugees have high productivity and low turnover rates. The University of Sydney Business School and the Crescent Foundation recently launched a guide for employers that want to hire refugees, featuring case studies from Ikea, Woolworths and Barclays Global Investors Services (BGIS). 

“Our research indicates that many employers have never considered expanding their talent pool to refugee jobseekers, or do not know where to start,” she said. 

“We strongly recommend that employers reach out to service providers, such as Community Corporate, who specialise in refugee employment. These providers could help in finding, screening and onboarding refugee candidates.” 

Szkudlarek is now inviting businesses that have not hired refugees previously to participate in a study to improve employment outcomes of refugee jobseekers, inform policy, and advance tangible solutions to refugee workforce integration in Australia.

Ikea evolves refugee employment program

In October 2020, Ikea launched the Skills for Employment Program in partnership with Community Corporate to help overcome key barriers to employment for refugees.

The program introduces participants to the workplace through an eight-week paid work placement at Ikea stores. The idea is not necessarily to hire every participant at Ikea, but rather to gain skills that they can bring to any workplace and build their English language confidence.

Harriet Pope, Skills for Employment program leader at Ikea Australia, said many participants continue working with Ikea after the program has finished. 

“There have been 70 participants to date from 19 countries, with the majority from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan with an average age of 32 years,” Pope told Inside Retail

“Though not the focus of the program, over 80 per cent of participants have secured ongoing work where roles were available and of these, 90 per cent are still employed with Ikea.”

On a global scale, Ikea has committed to supporting at least 2500 refugees by 2023 through job training and language skills initiatives, and this particular program aims to support 180 refugees and asylum seekers in Australia by mid-2023.

Ikea has already participated in The University of Sydney Business School study to improve the experience for participants. 

“On a practical level we were able to expand the cultural awareness training for line managers and buddies, refine our customised onboarding tools, and provide clearer guidance around setting individual goals and assessing performance,” Pope said. 

“We have also leveraged the strong internal engagement we’ve seen from our 4000 co-workers around the country – we’ve taken steps to strengthen our messaging and provide regular updates through various communication channels, and each time we do this we can see how much pride it is generating among our people.” 

Not only is the program beneficial to participants, it has had an impact with customers, co-workers and the wider business. Ikea employees said it has enhanced their cultural awareness and allowed them to build new communication and mentoring skills. It has also given them a stronger sense of purpose in their roles.

“For our customers, there are clear examples of shared languages and cultural connections that support a better customer experience, especially in our more diverse neighbourhoods across the country. And for our business, we have unearthed a new talent pool of highly motivated, adaptable, and loyal people,” Pope said. 

While it’s early days, she said the business is already seeing indications of significantly lower turnover and absenteeism rates in this group. 

Accepted and supported

Mehdi Noori, a refugee from Afghanistan, participated in the Skills for Employment program at Ikea Adelaide in March 2021 and is now a permanent employee working in sales at the store.

Noori came to Australia from Afghanistan in 2013 at the age of 16 and was forced to leave family behind.

Without any cultural understanding of the Australian workforce or how to approach an employer, Noori struggled to get a job.

“When I arrived I knew a little bit of English, but that was something I struggled with finding work. But really, it was a lack of understanding about how to approach employers, to know what they were looking for in an employee, and how to conduct myself in an interview. Things are very different in Afghanistan,” Noori told Inside Retail

He eventually got a job in construction through an Afghan contact but found the work very tough. He ended up borrowing money from friends to buy a car and drive for Uber while he studied cyber security through a scholarship at Deakin University.

In 2019, Noori moved from Melbourne to Adelaide as part of the government visa requirement to live and work in a regional area. And after over a year of struggling to find a job in Adelaide, Noori found Community Corporate and enrolled in Ikea’s Skills for Refugees program.

Noori said that from the moment he entered the store for the first time, he felt accepted. 

“What made the most impact for me was having a designated ‘buddy’ in the program, who was there for constant support and guidance, and to learn from. When you can spend time with the one person you can share your story with, build a relationship with them and they can be a bridge to meet other co-workers and build connections,” he said. 

“It sounds simple, but to have someone to go to lunch with meant I could then meet other people and from there build my own relationships and find out what else is happening in the company outside my job in sales. I’m now involved in a health and wellbeing working group.”

Noori said the program helped him feel connected to society and community, particularly when news of the Afghanistan crisis hit in recent months. 

“I felt so embraced and supported. People were so caring, whatever I needed they were there for me, whether that was managers or co-workers. This meant so much to me,” he said. 

If your business has not previously hired refugees and you are interested in taking part in The University of Sydney study, you can email refugee-employment.project@sydney.edu.au

The post ‘I felt so supported’: How Ikea is evolving its refugee program appeared first on Inside Retail.