Updated: 9:21 a.m.
When Mike Arntson walks through the sprawling, noisy factory floor at Cardinal Glass in Fargo, he calls everyone he sees by name, exchanging waves or fist bumps.
"On our fast lines, we're producing a window about every 15 seconds," Arntson said.
There are 370 workers here, most assembling the insulated glass used by other companies to build windows. The factory turns out as many as 10,000 insulated glass units a day.
Seven in ten of the workers in this Fargo factory were born outside the United States. Workers come from 35 countries and five continents. Some workers arrive not speaking English.
The plant manager, Arntson, has been at this Fargo factory since it opened in 1998.
From the beginning, the company hired immigrants and refugees who were being resettled in Fargo, where thousands of refugees have been relocated in the past 40 years.
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"I remember the first time I hired someone who couldn't speak English,” said Arntson. “It was a young man from Somalia. He came every morning, and I turned him away because I couldn't communicate with him."
The young man showed up at the factory every day for a week, recalled Arntson.
"And I thought, if he shows up to work every day like he's showing up wanting a job every day, maybe he's going to work out just fine," he said.
So Arntson paired the young man with another Somali worker who spoke English.
And that was the start of a multi-lingual training program that continues today.
Safety instructions are printed in more than 20 languages. Workers help each other build language skills.
“Sometimes when they need translation, I help them in translating,” said a young man who recently arrived in Fargo from Afghanistan. MPR News is not identifying him because his family is still in Kabul, where he worked as a military translator. Several refugees from Afghanistan work here. “Some of them, they don't know English, so I have to teach them how to work and how to handle the things,” he said.
This man still holds out hope his family will join him in Fargo.
“If my family comes here, this place will be great place for me. Work is good. Good pay, bonuses. I have weekends. So everything is great for me here,” he said.
As he walks the factory Arntson stops to watch two men work around a large table, smoothly moving pieces of glass and tossing scraps into a bin.
"Ismet's from Bosnia, Abdul's from Iraq. Neither one of them speak English. They don't share a common language. They work great together," he said.
On another level of the factory, a woman is assembling window frames.
Prisca Dissou is from the Republic of Benin in West Africa. She came to Fargo in 2011, but started working at Cardinal Glass a year ago.
"I had a friend who told me about Cardinal,” she explained. “How flexible they are, (how they) work as a team."
Her previous job left her little time for her husband and three children, but here she has most weekends off and the company accommodates her schedule.
"I think I can see myself here for a long time," she said.
Breanna Reile also recently marked her one-year anniversary at Cardinal. Originally from Las Vegas, she's lived in Fargo for 20 years.
At Cardinal, she’s found a culture where she feels comfortable.
"Other employers in the past have judged me right at first time meeting me because I have piercings, tattoos, I do funny things with my hair,” she said, “But here, I've never felt that was a factor."
This is the most diverse company Reile has ever worked for, and as a team leader, she's been forced out of her comfort zone.
"I work with a lot of people who don't speak English as a first language. And while it's challenging, it's forced me to think outside of the box as a leader to find other ways to communicate with people," she said.
Communication is a challenge, but not a barrier, said Arntson.
“Instead of thinking of reasons why we can't do something, we try and frame that as ‘how can we make this happen?’ And that's allowed the diversity of our team to grow,” he said.
Arntson insists there was never a grand plan for building a factory around workers from across the globe.
"I wish I could take credit for having some kind of huge brainchild, right? But no, it just happened," he said.
Family on one end, respect on the other
Arntson grew up in northwest Minnesota and North Dakota, before going to the United States Military Academy at West Point and spending time in the military.
It's not unusual for Arntson to get several calls a week about diversity.
“Companies will come to us and say, 'Can you give us your book on diversity?' We don't have a book on diversity. We have five plant values here: family, safety, teamwork, excellence and respect," he said.
“And family on one end and respect on the other really bookmark those values really well, especially when it comes to diversity,” he said.
If workers need to pray during Ramadan, their breaks are adjusted to match prayer times. If someone needs to take care of a family matter, schedules are adapted so the needs of the company and the worker are met.
Araz Khalid is a department head, managing a production line. He worked his way up, starting as a glass cutter. He’s a former military translator who came to the U.S. from Kurdistan. He moved to Moorhead 12 years ago to help care for his father.
“When I came, this is the first job I had, and it will be the last job I have,” he said.
Khalid said management has gone above and beyond to help when he needed to take his father to medical appointments.
“They reached out and helped me out while I’m trying to take care of my dad and when I’m missing work. They’ve tremendously helped me out with that, and I’m grateful,” he said.
‘Bringing people together, you breed innovation.’
Over nearly 25 years, that approach has built loyalty.
"There are a lot of people who, they come barreling in my office, (and say) ‘I have a cousin that's coming here next week from Africa. I'm so excited. Like, they've got to work here,’” said human resources director Amanda Carlson. “And I think it's super cool just how pumped up people get like, I want my friends to work here."
Embracing a diverse workforce has been successful for Cardinal Glass, and economic development leaders in the area have taken notice.
Cardinal sets an example that other businesses can emulate, said Jenna Mueller, Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce Foundation Executive Director.
As the community plans for ways to meet growing workforce needs, expanding immigration and diversity are among the priorities. “Aggressively promoting the region for international immigration” is one of five ways listed in a recent strategic plan for addressing future workforce needs.
“When we look at diversity within our workforce we know that when we have a more welcoming, inclusive community, that brings a sense of belonging,” said Mueller. “And by bringing people together, you breed innovation.”
Cardinal’s Amanda Carlson has seen firsthand the ideas and solutions generated from a diverse workforce, and while it can sometimes be a challenge to work across language and cultural barriers, she said the rewards far outweigh the differences.
“I think the way that the world is right now, it can be kind of hard to look past that sometimes and look at our similarities. Sometimes it is easier to just focus on differences. And yet, when it comes down to it, we're all just people.”
Correction (Aug. 29, 2022): An earlier version of this story misspelled Prisca Dissou's name. The story has been updated.