A Norfolk County company wanted to hire Ukrainian refugees. First step? Build them a place to live

The Hamilton Spectator

J.P. Antonacci The Hamilton Spectator Sat., Jan. 7, 2023

Olha Diletchuk first came to Titan Trailers near Courtland in June, one week after she and her two young children landed in Canada as refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“I was ready to do any job just to stay here. I was ready even to weld,” said the 40-year-old businesswoman.

Titan Trailers owners, Mike and Sandy Kloepfer, had another idea. They hired Diletchuk (who has a background in human resources) as a recruiter for their Norfolk County-based company, which is a year behind on production orders for custom-built aluminum shipping containers due to a shortage of skilled workers.

Today, Diletchuk oversees a workforce of 20 fellow Ukrainian refugees, with more on the way.

“We come here and don’t have a place to live,” Diletchuk said. “And (the Kloepfers) said, ‘We will provide housing and we will drive you to work.’”

Titan’s new Ukrainian workers — along with their children, parents and partners — live inside a former tobacco research station on Schafer Side Road, a short drive from the factory.

The Kloepfers obtained the county’s permission to convert the research station (which had sat empty for years) into seven furnished apartments, complete with common areas and greenhouses where residents can grow their own food.

Schafer House — as the complex is now known — opened last August, providing transitional housing for more than 30 Ukrainians, with plans to build more apartments in the near future.

“It ended up being a much bigger job than we thought it would be,” said Titan Trailers project manager Dave Holmes. “But once we made the commitment, there was no turning back.”

The company offers refugees three months of rent-free lodging and then charges below market value. The new arrivals are expected to move out within 12 to 18 months so other newcomers can have the same opportunity.

“We saw the problem there and we knew we could do something, so we did it,” Sandy Kloepfer said, explaining why she and her husband spent “significantly more” than $1 million of their personal funds on the project.

“I wish we could do more. Because in the end, it’s going to pay our company back in spades,” she said. “It’ll take a while, a few years, but it’s worth investing in people who want to come here.”

Mike Kloepfer sees the arrangement as a win-win that helps the economy, the company and the workers themselves, without taking housing away from Canadians.

“If they get a place to live and a job, they just need a little kick-start — in our case, it’s three months rent-free — and they’re off to the races,” he said.

“And truthfully, that’s all they need,” Sandy Kloepfer added. “You give them a leg up, and you’ve got great taxpaying citizens that are going to make a life here.”

The benefit for Titan Trailers, they explained, is eventually increasing the workforce from 230 to 300 employees to clear the backlog of orders and expand production.

Back home in Ukraine, Titan’s newest employees were farmers, teachers, mechanics, ship builders and businesspeople. In Norfolk, most have become welders, a job in such high demand there are not enough locals to fill the open positions.

The company put on a welding course for the new hires, and Holmes said the fit has been “really good” between the Ukrainians and Titan’s Canadian welders, who appreciate the help.

“And we’re not taking jobs away from them,” Holmes said.

Rolling job fair

Most of the Ukrainian workforce at Titan Trailers first visited Norfolk County in June as part of a bus tour.

The rolling job fair — organized by the county’s economic development department, the Newcomer Centre of Peel, and Venture Norfolk, a business development corporation in Simcoe — showcased rural employment opportunities for refugees whose job search had been limited to the Greater Toronto Area.

“We wanted to figure out something that we could do (to help refugees). And at the same time, it’s assisting our businesses,” Chris Garwood, Norfolk’s economic development co-ordinator, told The Spectator during the tour.

Joining the bus tour proved to be a good decision for Vladyslav Chystov, who got to Toronto in May and saw a notice about the job tour in a Facebook group.

“We go around this area, and after I just applied for the job because they provide an apartment and a job,” Chystov told The Spectator.

“Titan Trailers provides for us apartment and income benefits. We pay like 60 per cent of full (rent) price, and that’s great.”

Chystov’s experience repairing home appliances has translated nicely to his new workplace, where he is a final finish technician, installing trailer floors, hydraulics and suspension systems.

“It’s not so hard to understand and start to work,” said the 26-year-old, who is in touch with family back home “every day” while also bonding with his Canadian coworkers.

“They’re very kind. They discuss with us everything, teach us everything,” he said. “I feel that they’re happy, and you feel happy, too.”

Language lessons

Housing was not the only barrier to settling the Ukrainians in Norfolk.

“(Language is) very important,” Diletchuk said. “As for me, I know English a little bit. But all those guys, they don’t speak English at all. It’s another continent, and you don’t know anything.”

Enter Kristine Carey, general manager of Venture Norfolk, which hosted a month of English classes, two hours a day, for the prospective workers.

Carey rounded up textbooks and rallied local volunteers — retired educators, teachers on summer break — to design a curriculum for adult learners focused on the language of the workplace, especially health and safety and how to handle job interviews.

Carey, who has Ukrainian heritage, served as a translator in the classroom.

“My grandparents were in a similar situation when they came to this country without much, so it was a way to pay it forward, for sure,” she said.

Her other motivation was to help “our local business owners who are desperate for workers.”

Businesses like Unilever, which hired 11 refugees to make ice cream at the company’s Simcoe plant.

“They have already contributed through their hard work and positive attitudes,” Unilever spokesperson Katharine Williams told The Spectator in an email.

“We have truly enjoyed getting to know them and welcoming them into the Unilever family. In fact, we have two people who came from Ukraine who have since gotten married and are now working together at our plant.”

A little help

Ideally, Carey said, employers in rural areas like Norfolk would not have to take on the additional “burden” of co-ordinating housing and social services for their employees.

But when the closest immigration settlement services are in Hamilton or Brantford, employers are left to lean on generous locals who volunteer to co-ordinate social insurance numbers, ESL classes, lodging and transportation for newcomers.

The Kloepfers would like to see government support for rural businesses that want to build housing for new immigrants as a way to address the labour shortage, without exacerbating the affordable housing crisis facing Canadians.

“We’re a tiny solution to the problem that could be duplicated,” Sandy Kloepfer said.

“I know that there’s a lot of companies and individuals that would invest in this if the red tape wasn’t so absolutely crazy.”

Mike Kloepfer said Ottawa made a good first step toward avoiding economic stagnation by upping the annual immigration target to 500,000 people by 2025.

“Well, that’s great, because we do need people to work,” he said. “But where are we going to put all these people?”

The Kloepfers — who built Schafer House without any taxpayer dollars — are not looking for government to “fork out a lot of money” to fund company housing, he added. Interest-free loans to industry, he said, “would go a long way.”

In the meantime, Sandy Kloepfer said, the community support for the refugees from residents, churches and cultural groups in Delhi has been overwhelming.

 “They’ve been so generous,” she said, mentioning one resident who dropped off Christmas turkeys for each family and a local company that outfitted every Ukrainian with a new winter coat, boots, hat and gloves.

“There’s just so many people that care so much about what happens,” Kloepfer said. “It’s so heartwarming.”

A better future

As the year draws to a close, Diletchuk marvels at how dramatically her life has changed.

Her children attend public school in Delhi while she manages an apartment complex, drives refugees to town in a van provided by the company, and runs a weekly English-language club.

“I was very lucky to be on that bus tour,” said Diletchuk, who is also hard at work identifying the next wave of Ukrainians who can take refuge at Schafer House.

“Mike and Sandy said that we’re ready to accept plenty more,” she said.

Sandy Kloepfer credited Diletchuk for “building a little community that’s thriving in Canada.”

“It’s so rewarding to see how well they’re doing, how happy everybody is, how hard they work, how glad everybody is to have an opportunity,” Kloepfer said.

“It’s just so nice to see them make a new life.”

In December, Diletchuk brought her mother to Canada from western Ukraine, a “safer” region where she still spent hours each night huddled in a dark basement to avoid Russian airstrikes.

Her mother marvelled at seeing lights left on at Schafer House, and people smiling.

“In Ukraine right now, you cannot see this,” Diletchuk said. “She’s going to stay because she’s safe here.”