The Portland-based construction and renovation company Bondeko actively trains and hires immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Orson Horchler, who started the company two years ago, says the word Bondeko is from Lingala, a Bantu language that is spoken by many Congolese and Angolan residents in Portland.
“It’s a word that means the feeling of being family with people who are not necessarily your family-and a feeling of equal,” says Horchler. He says the name Bondeko “kind of exemplifies who we are as a business.”
Pay at Bondeko has a starting range of $15-$25 an hour. There are four full-time and two part-time workers at the company, including one woman. Many of these hires may get a work permit before becoming fluent in English.
Horchler says that he has no trouble finding employees, while his competitors face a very different experience.
“All over the US and in Maine, there is a real crisis in construction,” says Horchler. “And contractors I know–great contractors–they just cannot find help.”
Both of Horchler’s parents were immigrants. He lived in Maine as a child, then moved to France until he was 18, before returning to the United States 21 years ago. For this reason, Horchler communicates most easily with French-speaking workers, like 20-year old Christopher, who moved from the Democratic Republic of the Congo eight months ago. When Christopher isn’t at Adult Education classes, he’s working at Bondeko.
“Money will come,” Christopher says. “More important, I’m here, is first of all, to learn this job. And, it’s helped me with my English. I really like this job, because here, in general, all the world’s in English here. Sometimes, at the school, they don’t teach me the things that they teach me here.”
John Scribner, the Director of StartSmart, a program at Coastal Enterprises (CEI), emphasizes the importance of these English-learning opportunities.
“Making sure there are opportunities to learn English, to learn the English specific to that industry…that helps new Americans start and grow small businesses,” Scribner says. “Being a little more flexible, or a little more patient initially, I think, can really lead to a loyal, hard-working employee.”
Horchler agrees, “Actually, I think the best place to learn a language is at work.”
Beyond language, Scribner says Maine’s construction industry as a whole is starting to offer what what he calls “on-ramps” into the trade, like the Construction Training Program offered last year by Lewiston Adult Ed and other agencies. The program included class work, technical skills training, and job-specific language lessons. Eight graduates completed the course and were offered on-the-job training with local contractors afterward.
“This is one solution to that demographic cliff that we’re all hearing about and talking about,” Scribner says, “One of the solutions is the immigrant workforce.”
Another aspect of that solution, says Horchler, requires that the culture redefine “who a construction worker in Maine is.”
“It’s a very strict definition,” Horchler says. “And it’s a definition that at times I’ve fit really well because I’m a white, straight male” Horchler says he’s working to challenge this definition. “When I show up on a jobsite and people see and hear that we’re from all different countries, they see people of different racial backgrounds and cultural backgrounds. I want it to be something that people not only expect, but even desire.”
Workplace camaraderie extends into the off-hours.
“Often after work I’m helping somebody find housing,” he says. “Called into the hospital to understand a bill. Even responding to questions about the most basic knowledge of dating in America.” On a recent cold day, the crew even helped Horchler move.
Horchler says his company’s commitment to working directly with immigrant workers isn’t just about helping the crew become financially secure.
“I myself still have sometimes negative experiences of being plunged into this different culture every day,” he says. “I’ve created what people might call a safe space on my job site. We all share this, the joy and the pain of migration, of immigration–of being in the US, of not understanding the culture.”