The whirring grind of metal against metal resounds through the vast Williams Bridge Co. factory, a noise so loud you can't hear yourself speak. The men who move, cut, drill and weld the huge steel plates and girders use hand signals to communicate.
That's just as well, because many of them don't speak English -- their native languages are Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Russian and Somali.
Like many other companies in an economy where unemployment is near zero, Williams Bridge is struggling with a shortage of skilled workers. The foreign languages that mix with the Virginia drawls indicate how the steel-fabrication plant is trying to solve that problem: A third of its workers are recent refugees who came to the United States after fleeing turmoil and persecution in their homelands.
"You think it's hard to hire a computer technician, just try to find a welder, a painter or anyone else who is what we would consider a traditional trade," said Marianne Pastor, a vice president at Williams Industries Inc., the Falls Church-based heavy construction company that is the parent of Williams Bridge.
At the Richmond plant, 17 of 55 workers are refugees placed there this year through the Virginia Council of Churches, which works with congregations to sponsor refugees. That number is likely to increase. With rising demand for steel bridge girders, Williams Bridge wants to staff up to 70 employees.
Despite the need for the workers, there have been growing pains. "It has not been a love fest," plant manager Art Miles said about the relationship between his established workers and the refugees. "But we have so much work that the choices are do you want to do it all or do you want to struggle with this person and teach them?"
He said: "We have an extremely tight labor market right now. It is naive to think someone is going to knock at your door and . . . you're going to have an instant welder."
Some 78,000 refugees, who seek asylum from possible persecution in their homelands, come to the United States legally each year. About 500 will be placed through the Council of Churches this year, said Richard D. Kline, director of the organization's refugee-resettlement program. The group has found Kurdish refugees jobs at poultry plants in Harrisonburg, landed Bosnians places at carpentry shops in Richmond and placed Somalis in hotels around the state working as housekeepers.
"It's basically jobs that U.S.-born citizens do not like to do," Kline said.
For refugees entering the country under the resettlement program, the jobs satisfy the government requirement that they become self-supporting. The work at Williams Bridge is hard and dirty, but the pay is decent for Richmond -- $8 an hour to start, plus lots of overtime as well as insurance and other benefits. With that money, the men are buying cars, supporting families here and at home, and moving forward with their new U.S. lives.
Some of the refugees are effusive in their praise of the new boss. "I love this job," said Abdullahi Aidarus, a Somali who spoke through an interpreter. After leaving his home, he spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He used to be a truck driver; now he has learned to operate three steel-fabrication machines. "They treat us as a brother; they treat us as not refugees. If I am alive, I want to continue my job," he said.
Others see Williams Bridge as a first step. "I like this company so much and it's very nice, but my hope is that I get my own business," said Jamal Abdul Wahab, an Iraqi who sold antique cars in his homeland. He left Iraq in early 1997, spent two years in Jordan and came to the United States about four months ago. Unlike many of his co-workers, he's fluent in English, so he helps the others along when they stumble over the new words.
Alvedin Josic, a 20-year-old Bosnian who says he's working so many hours that he doesn't have time to spend the money he makes, is concentrating on learning English so he can go back to school. Grimacing at his filthy hands, he says, "I don't want to work here all my life -- am I crazy?"
For managers and longtime employees at Williams, the influx of new workers means dealing not only with language barriers but also with what had been exotic cultures. Until this year, for instance, none of the factory's employees took time off for Ramadan, the Islamic religious holiday.
For plant manager Miles, the ideal employee would be an experienced steelworker hired away from a competitor. But there just aren't enough of those, so he looks instead for people who are trainable. "I'm looking for work ethic more than a skill," he said.
Williams has tried other paths for recruiting workers. For instance, the cigarette factories that historically are so important to the Richmond economy are scaling back, but it turns out that many of the people losing jobs there would rather take their pensions and retire early than work in the steel industry.
With the refugees, Miles said, "we have brought a group of people in who are willing learners." They're also hard workers who show up every day, he said. "These guys are like clocks."
Training is a "combination of the spoken word, the written word and hand signals," Miles said. More experienced workers often act as interpreters and teachers for newer employees.
"You teach by example," he said. For instance, recently a Somali was struggling with one of the metalworking machines -- not surprising, considering that his background was in sales.
"What he understood was required and what was required were miles apart," Miles said. But fixing the problem turned out to be easy. "It was nothing more than me grabbing the grinder physically" to show the man the right way.
Richmond is not exactly a city known for its global diversity, but the refugees say they are finding communities of their countrymen as the number of people resettled there grows.
For instance, Sharif-Ali Hashim, a Somali who works with the Virginia Council of Churches as an interpreter and caseworker, said on most weekends about 20 Somalian families will meet at his house to talk and eat home-style food.
With the growing exile population in the area, Hashim said, it has recently become possible to buy goat meat in the former capital of the Confederacy -- at three places.
CAPTION: Essef Lizalovie, from Bosnia, is one of many refugee workers at the Williams Bridge steel factory. Varied languages lead workers to communicate with signals.
CAPTION: Jamal Abdul Wahab, above, an Iraqi who sold antique cars, has been in the United States for four months. Fluent in English, he helps out with language problems at the Richmond plant. At right, Abdullahi Aidarus, who is from Somalia, walks with Bosnian Essef Lizalovie.