Hiring Refugees, and Making Sure They Succeed

Following success in the U.S., WeWork Refugee Initiative expands to Europe, Latin America

by Mark Sullivan

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After sending out between 40 and 50 job applications, Amir Azimi was feeling discouraged. His training in mechanical engineering should have gotten him interviews, but the handful of replies he received told him thanks, but no thanks.

“I was looking everywhere,” says Azimi, a native of Iran who moved to the UK five years ago. “I even applied at places like the Gap.”

His sister suggested he reach out to Breaking Barriers, a London-based organization that helps refugees get the skills and experience they need to find fulfilling employment. Staffers there helped him update his resume and practice his interview skills. Then they told him about an opening at WeWork.

“I interviewed at WeWork,” he says, “and the next day they offered me a job.”

Azimi is one of more than 150 people who have been hired through WeWork’s Refugee Initiative. He’s in an 18-month apprenticeship program in the company’s operations department based at London’s WeWork Hammersmith.

“I am so happy to be at WeWork,” says Azimi, who says he is thrilled to put his skills to good use. “For me this is dream coming true. I am so thankful and grateful every night when I go to bed and when I get up in the morning.”

In early 2017, WeWork and the International Rescue Committee started a pilot program to employ recently resettled refugees displaced by war, political unrest, or natural disasters. More than 50 people were hired as part of the program in New York, Chicago, and Boston.

The retention rate was more than 80 percent—much higher than the overall retention rate for employees in similar jobs. The pilot was so successful that WeWork started the WeWork Refugee Initiative, a commitment to hire 1,500 refugees over the next five years.

Since then, WeWork has hired more than 150 refugee team members in 10 cities, helped integrate new team members like Azimi through monthly events and mentorships, and offered training and growth opportunities.

To help in recruiting efforts across the company, WeWork has embarked on a partnership with Upwardly Global, the leading national organization that helps businesses attract and keep highly skilled refugee talent.

As World Refugee Week begins, WeWork announced the expansion of the initiative to the UK, Brazil, and Colombia through direct hiring, new partnerships, and connecting refugees with job opportunities both within and outside of our community.

To extend the reach of the WeWork Refugee Initiative, the company is taking advantage of its global community of more than 50,000 member companies. One recent example of the power of WeWork’s community was at the San Francisco Creator Awards, where more than 20 companies like Starbucks, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Box pledged their support to recruit refugee job seekers or leveraged the event to support their existing commitments.

It’s a good deal for employers, who are seeing significant cost savings by not having to replace workers. According to a survey by the Tent Partnership for Refugees, another partner with WeWork, 73 percent of U.S. companies reported a lower turnover for employees who are refugees. The result was consistent across different industries and geographic regions.

Employers say that hiring refugees has a long-term benefit as well. It opens the door to further recruitment efforts of other groups –– which leads to a more diverse workforce.

Building a new life

Azimi says his father was the first one in his family to leave Iran. His mother and sister soon followed. It was a difficult process for them, since the British Embassy in Tehran had been closed since it was stormed by protesters in 2011. Iranians seeking a new life in the UK had to find their way to Dubai or Turkey.

Azimi went to Istanbul, where after 11 months he was reunited with his family. They lived in a small town in the UK before moving to London.

He studied architecture in Iran, but Azimi says that finishing his education in the UK would have taken many years. He decided instead to pursue mechanical engineering.

He says he’s thrilled to be offered a place in the apprenticeship program. He’s spending a week in eight different departments, including security and energy; afterward he’ll choose in which one he’ll spend the rest of his time in the program.

“I never thought I’d be at a company like WeWork,” says Azimi, who is leaning toward the facilities department. “When do you ever get an opportunity like this?”

Peter Kennedy, head of building operations for Europe, Israel and Australia, says that Azimi is a standout on his team.

“From the minute I met Amir, I knew he would be great fit,” says Kennedy. “During the interview, his hunger for knowledge and growth was evident, backed up by a history of self-development and studying. He has a very bright future with WeWork.”

Recognizing that the road to rebuilding your future can be a long one, growth will continue to be a focus of WeWork’s Refugee Initiative. WeWork has started several pilots, including one to use its space for partners to teach language skills, as well as another to help entry-level staffers hone their skills in coding and technology. A mentorship program pairs these newcomers with more experienced staffers throughout the company.

Many of the pilots are intended to help people feel like an integral part of the company. For example, there are monthly welcome lunches where new and existing team members can get to know each other over a meal.

Perhaps most importantly, WeWork has made sure people in the program have the opportunity to move up in the company, with a growing number hired through refugee partners having already been promoted.

Azimi says the chance to grow along with WeWork is part of the appeal.

“After my apprenticeship, I definitely want to stay with WeWork,” he says. “That’s one thing I know for sure.”

For more about the WeWork Refugee Initiative, click here.

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