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Perham company to bring workers from abroad

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KLN Family Brands is partnering with a national education program to bring more than 60 interns from abroad to work and learn at Barrel O'Fun.

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Since 1985, Communicating for Agriculture Education Programs (CAEP) has arranged for 20,000 interns from 50 different countries to travel to the U.S., where they gain professional experience in agricultural areas such as agribusiness, dairy farming, horsemanship, greenhouses and turf management.

This will be the first time a KLN property has been involved in the program. Interns will be coming to Perham as soon as mid-April. They will have 10-month visas that allow them to stay and work in an agricultural setting.

"It's all linked to agriculture," said KLN recruiter Fred Sailer. "We're so driven by agricultural products — corn, potatoes and all that stuff — that we qualify (for the program)."

The interns have a variety of previous work experience, and have gone through a rigorous approval process.

First, the interns were interviewed by either Sailer or Nancy Belka, KLN's human resource director. Next, they were interviewed by the internship program, followed by the U.S. Department of Labor and Homeland Security.

If there are any problems on an applicant's record, such as a previously denied visa, that's the end of the line, Sailer said.

Of the 60 interns that have been approved so far, most of them have already been to the U.S. with another internship. The majority are in their mid-20s, speak good English and have advanced degrees.

The interns will come from countries around the world, including Haiti, Ukraine and the Philippines.

"It's all about continuing to improve their English, bringing back money to support their families and helping them start their own careers," said Belka. "That's the kind of fun part about it — what they want to do back home with those dollars."

Some of the interns, who have four-year degrees, might make about $100 or $200 a month at their job at home, Belka said. This will give them the chance to earn some "real money" to take back.

"It is an agricultural internship; they're here to learn," Sailer added. "Obviously they're going to make money, and they want to, but the whole deal is the education program."

Discussion began between Belka and CAEP last summer, when Barrel O' Fun was having trouble finding enough people to work on its production lines.

"We didn't know what to expect right away," Belka said. "We didn't know if this was something that was really going to work, or can we make it work? But, it's been growing ever since."

"I think we both went into this just a little... apprehensive about how this would work," said Sailer. "But, we're looking at people who are very motivated, who want to take home skills to better their family and their community."

The interns will begin in general, entry-level line-work positions, Belka said, and can potentially advance to other roles, if openings come up that are not filled by current employees.

Both Sailer and Belka emphasized that the internship program will not be a long-term fix, and it will not eliminate employment opportunities in Perham.

"We continue to go to job fairs," Sailer said. "We continue to recruit and advertise for workers. This won't meet our needs. It sure helps, but we continue to look for local people to take jobs here."

"We're advertising from Wisconsin to Montana looking for people," he continued. "You know, in a way, it's a good thing... but still, we need to meet that quota. It's not good when you have millions of dollars in equipment sitting idle. It's just not smart business."

Down the road, Belka said, it is possible that the intern program might expand to other KLN properties, if all goes well this year and there is still a need for workers in the future.

"As unemployment has dropped... we just don't have enough people coming through the door to take those jobs," said Sailer. "I think this is going to be a major factor in us being able to fill orders and keep rolling."

For this initial group of interns, visas had been approved for March through December. However, the Department of Homeland Security's clearing process has taken longer than expected. Now, Belka said, the first group of interns might arrive as soon as mid-April. Their visas will still expire in December.

When they arrive, the interns will be staying at a hotel in Wadena. In the future, Sailer said, the plan is to have some sort of housing available in Perham.

CAEP is responsible for finding housing and providing transportation and three meals a day for the interns. A small deduction to cover some of these expenses will be taken off of the interns' paychecks.

Learning about the industry is a primary focus of the internship, but that does not mean their experience will be limited to what happens inside the factory.

"They just want to experience everything," Belka said, mentioning that some of the interns have said they can't wait to see snow for the first time.

Sailer hopes the learning experience will go both ways.

"Certainly, they're coming here to learn from us, but, if we're smart enough ... we can learn from them," said Sailer. "In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Gosh, we could have somebody here who could teach French or talk to our kids about their culture.'"

As with any new program on a relatively large scale, Belka and Sailer acknowledged that there might be some apprehension and curiosity as to whether everything will go smoothly.

"As it's gotten closer, I think some people have gotten a little concerned," said Sailer. "They don't know what to expect, and I get that. My hope is that we will be typical of how we always are, and that's that we will welcome some new people with open arms."

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