I am disheartened by Shawn Emerson’s despairing statement. “Most of them left their countries and came here because of religious persecution,” says Emerson, director of agronomy at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.
He is speaking to me about the many refugees who work on his golf course maintenance staff from countries such as Iraq, Russia and Myanmar (formerly Burma) who were driven from their strife-ridden countries because they are Christians, Muslims or another creed. They came to Arizona to find a better life. Emerson, who oversees the maintenance of six private Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, wants emphatically to help them with that at Desert Mountain.
To Emerson, the refugees are no different than anybody else who works at Desert Mountain, including himself.
“People are people,” he says. “They want a good working wage and to be recognized for their achievements.”
Desert Mountain, recently recognized as one of the top 20 places to work in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, teams with area relief organizations to employ the refugees. When there is conflict around the world, there is an increase of refugees who come to the U.S. Many travel to Arizona, where they contact the relief organizations to help them find jobs. That’s when Emerson gets a call.
Of the 188 employees working for Emerson, nearly 50 of them hail from foreign countries that also include Cuba, the Philippines, Guatemala and several African countries. Emerson not only wants to help them, he wants the refugees to help him. Just like at many golf courses around the country, one of Emerson’s biggest challenges is finding reliable labor.
“It’s twofold. We want to give them a better life, and we need them,” Emerson says. “The traditional labor force is just not there anymore.”
Desert Mountain has made itself an attractive employer to the refugees, who earn $14.50 an hour. They are also offered the chance to move up. In addition, Desert Mountain offers a variety of benefits, such as a van service to take employees to and from work, financial classes, medical care and meals.
“The goal is retention,” Emerson says.
On the golf courses, Emerson and his assistants have gone to great lengths to communicate with the refugees as to how maintenance tasks should be performed. Despite the complexity of dealing with people who speak so many different languages, Emerson and his assistants have found that cameras on smartphones have been a great communication tool. For instance, they show employees how a properly raked bunker should appear.
“We show them how to do things rather than try to tell them, which can get lost in translation,” Emerson says.
The refugees, despite their cultural differences, get along well with each other. They help each other, share their different cuisines at lunchtime and try to learn each other’s languages. Emerson is amazed at the passion they bring to the job, not to mention their ingenuity.
“It’s pretty incredible what is going on here at times,” he says.
As a manager, Emerson has adapted his style. In the past, he admits he has gone Bobby Knight on some employees for not performing to his expectations. But now, mainly because of the communication barriers, Emerson has tempered his approach. He is more patient and quiet in his tone to motivate and instruct.
Emerson has found that positive reinforcement, be it through a smile, a thumbs-up sign or a simple nod of the head, can go a long way.
“When you are dealing with different languages, the outward appearance of you is more important than what you say,” Emerson says. “They don’t pick up on individual words. They pick up on the tone and the meaning.”
Emerson is not lost at what is going on in the world in regard to corrupt nations and their leaders – masters of war who have plunged their countries into turmoil.
“The people of the world are not at odds with each other – just the governments are,” Emerson says. “It is the governments that fight war, not their people.”
But it is people like Emerson at places like Desert Mountain who are giving the innocent bystanders of these shattered nations another chance to live meaningful work-filled lives.