Business & Real Estate

Afghan refugees given a leg up in finding Sacramento area jobs

Afghan native Ahmad Mherjo prepares to assemble an office chair at ALCO General Contractors in Rancho Cordova . Mherjo works in the warehouse.
Afghan native Ahmad Mherjo prepares to assemble an office chair at ALCO General Contractors in Rancho Cordova . Mherjo works in the warehouse.

The Sacramento region’s building industry is experiencing a severe labor shortage. Meanwhile, Ahmad Mherjo and other Afghan refugees are struggling to find work here, after risking their lives to help U.S. forces in their homeland.

The North State Building Industry Foundation saw an opportunity there. It’s recruiting workers with the skills and competency to succeed in the construction industry, said Rick Larkey, the director of that nearly 10-year-old organization. He’s now dedicated a portion of its funds to train Mherjo and others for jobs at local companies.

“To tell you the truth, it was like we’d found a gold mine,” Larkey said. “We’re hiring a lot of folks right now, and we can’t find really good, qualified folks. For us, this was a perfect match. The challenge was making sure people really understood the companies and understood their procedures.”

Fortunately, the foundation had plenty of experience in job training. In fact, it was established to do just that.

“In 2005, before the big (construction industry) fall, we were in another high-demand situation,” Larkey said. “The building industry, at the time, created a workforce development committee, and they got a contract with our national counterpart, the Home Builders Institute, to work with high school students and develop construction training capacity at the high school level as well as at the community college level.”

Using funding from individual donations and the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, the foundation still offers internships to high school graduates in addition to on-the-job training for community college students, ex-offenders and the unemployed. Its work with Afghan refugees is not the first time the organization has helped an immigrant population find its financial footing. It also provided training to Russian immigrants.

It was Narine Avagyan, the foundation’s hiring assistance program manager, who made the foundation’s team aware that Afghan immigrants were struggling to find work.

“Narine was at a job fair that (state Assemblyman) Ken Cooley sponsored back in August or September of last year,” Larkey said. “She met people like Ahmad who came over from Afghanistan, and they were a great fit for us because they were working with the military. A lot of them had experience in areas like construction and some of the administrative roles like purchasing.”

Mherjo, a 36-year-old father of four, has been working for ALCO General Contractors for about five months. During his first six months on the job, he has been paid with funds from the Sacramento training agency. Trainees are hired with the expectation that the employer will offer them a long-term, full-time job if they complete the program successfully.

When Mherjo and his family initially arrived in the United States, they lived with his maternal grandfather in San Leandro for several months starting in November 2015. Housing costs were too high near the coast, he said, so he came farther inland to the capital.

Once he got settled, he sought job training from the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance. Through their Job Club/Job Search program, he got lessons in how to write a résumé and interview, and strategies for mounting a job search.

“They offered me some jobs, but … I was not eligible for those,” Mherjo said. “Most of them, they want two years or one year of work experience in the United States. Some, when I called them, they asked me whether I was a permanent resident or a citizen.”

Mherjo worked in Kabul for the big U.S. government contractor DynCorp International, but in California, he literally couldn’t get in the door to ask about a job at Costco because he wasn’t a member. It wasn’t until he met Avagyan that he got connected with a job.

“I’m working in the warehouse for ALCO General Contractors, doing some inventory, receiving orders, delivering orders,” Mherjo said. “It’s a construction company, and I started at the beginning at $15 per hour, and after one month or two months, they raised my salary. I’m happy. They are kind people. I am working hard for them.”

About seven months ago, renewable energy installer Syntrol took on four Afghan immigrants from among Avagyan’s clients. Of the company’s new hires, customer operations manager Ariel Guardado said: “I’m definitely impressed with their (Microsoft) Excel skills and their ability to navigate through our project management system. … They can create the necessary reports, and they’re pretty high-level reports. This is not basic Excel skills.”

The company launched a new quality control department and assigned three of the Afghan natives to work there, Guardado said. Basically, he said, it’s their job to ensure that crews are doing what’s needed to pass government inspection the first time. Repeated inspections run up costs.

“It’s a new department, and they are owning and developing the department,” Guardado said. “I guide them on the direction we need to go, but ultimately the ideas and feedback come from them on what we can do. It’s really given them the opportunity to grow and to be heard. They can feel pride in what they’re doing. They’re really providing a way for the company to improve.”

Even as they grow into new roles at work, they face the daily challenges of life in a new country. It can be hard, for instance, to get children to medical appointments when the family’s only driver is at work during the day.

Those challenges are not unfamiliar to Avagyan, who relocated to the Sacramento region from Armenia with her parents at age 14. At the building foundation, she works with 64 clients, half of whom are Afghan immigrants.

“One of my success stories was when a client was having a hard time getting his driver’s license,” Avagyan said. “I encouraged him. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It took me three times to pass my exam.’ 

The client was shocked, because he knew Avagyan had lived here since age 14, but her personal struggle inspired him to keep trying. One day, glowing with pride, he came to see her and show her his driver’s license. Not having one, Larkey said, poses a huge barrier to many of the people that the foundation tries to help find work.

The North State Building Industry Association and the foundation recently launched an initiative to add 5,000 construction jobs in five years. Known as the 5kin5 Initiative, the program is aiming to develop a recruiting system that will address the industry’s labor shortage in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties.

Not only is the foundation priming the pipeline with its work at educational institutions and with job training programs, it also is organizing job fairs like the one it’s planned for 2 to 5 p.m. April 4 at the Citrus Heights Community Center, 6300 Fountain Square Drive. Attendees must register for this event at

“Our industry is at this crossroads right now where it’s ready to grow with the region, but the labor force isn’t there,” said Ioannis Kazanis, the communications director at the North State Building Industry Association. “Individuals like Ahmad who immigrate to the United States, they bring a skill set with them and obviously a work ethic as well. They’re looking to make their way. … We focus on people looking for an opportunity. I think a lot of people think all the jobs are out on a construction site, and yes, there are those jobs, but there are other jobs in purchasing, accounting and project management.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee