ST. PAUL — At a time when nursing homes and assisted living facilities are scrambling to find employees who can balance a strong work ethic with sensitivity to the needs of vulnerable adults, Jane Graupman believes she has just the solution.

In a word? Refugees. She wants more of them, and she wants to make more room for them and other immigrants in her crowded classrooms.

Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, is able to place almost all the graduates of her 8- to 11-week medical assistance training program. Down the street from her Como Avenue headquarters, some 75 percent of the nursing assistants at the St. Anthony Park Home transitional and hospice care facility are institute graduates, as are many of the registered nurses.

In fact, Graupman said, many of the 145 students who will graduate from the program this year will return for further training on the path to become RNs. That likeliness is one of several reasons the St. Paul-based institute is taking on a $12 million capital campaign to expand its teaching space.

“They were the ones who helped me start my career, told me where to go, who to talk to,” said Gladys Mann, who began taking classes with the institute when she arrived in the U.S. with her family in early 2000. Mann, a Liberian immigrant, is a registered nurse as well as an adjunct instructor of nursing at St. Paul College. “They were my first line of contact when I entered America.”

The institute — which celebrated its 100th anniversary in December — serves immigrants from more than 100 countries through wide-ranging case management, social service, job training and advocacy programs. Refugees will make up at least 20 to 25 percent of the 4,100 clients it will work with this year. That’s a record number of clients for the institute, which operates out of two adjoining buildings that date to the 1950s and early 1970s.

Refugees, however, have been dropping in number. The institute resettled 282 refugees last year — about half as many as it found housing for in 2016.

The decrease is a direct impact of recent federal policies aimed at curbing refugee resettlements, Graupman said. The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports 663 refugees were resettled across the state in 2018, down from a recent high of more than 5,000 in 2005.

Is the welcome mat still out?

President Donald Trump has asked counties across the nation to vote on whether to accept new refugees — defined as people forced to flee their homes because of war, violence or persecution. Last week in northern Minnesota, Beltrami County officials made national headlines by voting 3-2 to not accept new refugee placements.

Hennepin County, though, recently joined a dozen other Minnesota counties in voting “Yes” to new refugee placements. The Ramsey County Board is scheduled to take up the issue Tuesday.

Graupman said a key piece of information missing from many discussions about refugees is the positive economic impact that immigrants — and refugees in particular — have on the economy, especially at a time of national labor shortages.

Most of the growth in the Minnesota labor force the past few years has been foreign-born workers, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Without them, the workforce would be shrinking dramatically.

“At least over the last decade, the growth in Minnesota has been due to immigration, either from other states or other countries,” said Shannon Watson, director of public affairs for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “If that doesn’t continue, it’s going to have a negative impact on our economy. We’re already hearing from businesses that they can’t get enough workers.”

Institute seeks $12 million expansion

Refugees who gravitate to the institute arrive with a ready-to-work attitude cultivated from years of having to seize every opportunity they can, Graupman said.

“More than ever in the history of our program, people come with more education and more English skills,” Graupman said. “They’re incredibly resourceful. Some people have walked miles to get to school every day. They’ve started micro-businesses in the camps.”

Of the 30 programs run through the institute, Graupman is especially proud of its track record of graduating nursing assistants from a Medical Careers Pathway program that walks students through 57 technical skills. Graduates have a strong track record of passing certification exams, finding work in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and then returning for a free college-prep course that puts them on a path toward a nursing degree, she said.

One of the biggest challenges? Physical space.

Program administrators work out of converted closets and maintain desks in narrow hallways. Social workers meet with labor and sex trafficking victims at a round table behind the mail cubbies, which offers virtually no privacy. Some 70 years ago, Graupman’s office was part of a small apartment. The restroom has a bathtub in it.

In 2017, the institute started a capital campaign to fund a $12 million expansion for new classroom and meeting room space. They’ve raised $5 million from foundations and private donors and expect to be able to access another $2 million that way. Institute officials are hoping Gov. Tim Walz includes $5 million for the campaign in his state bonding proposal and that state lawmakers smile on the recommendation.

“Short term, we’re helping people adapt to ‘How are you going to pay the rent?’ ” said Micaela Schuneman, director of Refugee Services with the institute. “Long term, we try to help people start thinking about what options might be available … so they know how to start that process.”