For refugees like Ada Swenson, working at the medical device company Vascular Solutions in Maple Grove, Minn., is more than just a job.
Swenson, 40, fled the communist regime in Cambodia in 1979, trekking for days through a forest until crossing the Thailand border to safety.
"There is no gun put to your head when you live in this country," said Swenson, who started assembling medical devices for Vascular Solutions 13 years ago.
Minnesota companies are turning to immigrants like Swenson from East Africa and Southeast Asia to build medical devices for entry-level wages.
The immigrant workforce is increasingly seen as key both to the burgeoning medical device industry, which has found a reliable supply of laborers who are remarkably loyal to their employers, as well as to the workers for whom English is not their native language and for whom fluency isn't required.
"This is one of the critical features of Minnesota," said Vascular Solutions CEO Howard Root. "We have this assembly base that is here and knows how to perform these tasks and work in this environment."
The immigrants find out about the jobs through other employees, often immediate family members or relatives. Companies say they hire workers who have work visas or are American citizens for jobs that can pay $14 an hour and include benefits.
Greatbatch Medical, which makes components for medical devices, says at least 65 percent of workers at its Minneapolis facility are non-native English speakers. They mostly serve as operators and visual inspectors.
Working in medical device production generally requires less English than a retail job, said Jeff Strydio, a Greatbatch Medical human resource generalist for the cardiac and neurology group. "There's not a lot of barriers to entry, not a lot of hoops you have to jump to get through."
The entry-level jobs can provide a steady career path. Swenson began as an assembler at Vascular Solutions; today she is a design transfer coordinator. Part of her job is writing instructions on how to build the devices.
"It's individual empowerment on how hard you work, how good you are, and what you are doing," Swenson said of the company's internal promotions. "The opportunity is there for everybody in the company to go after (their goals)."
Dee Vang, a 24-year-old Hmong-American, started working in 2006 at the company, where her parents work.
"It's a great opportunity," said Vang, an operator.
Vascular Solutions said it hired 10 assemblers through its referral process last year, and 17 more this year. Most were non-native English speakers. Employees of Southeast Asian descent comprise 75 percent of the production team.
But no one is guaranteed a job for life. Many immigrants who once worked for medical device companies were laid off in the Great Recession and are still looking for work. Each day, the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota receives inquiries from 20 to 30 people asking for help finding jobs. The workers lack strong English skills, are often older and only have a high school degree.
"That's a barrier, a challenge that my community has," said Sunny Sinh Chanthanouvong, the center's executive director.
The number of employees in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing across the nation dropped 3 percent last year to 529,000 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Asians represented 10.7 percent of those workers in 2009, compared with 11.6 percent in 2008.