Hispanic workers have long been a staple in the spring industry. Today, though, two forces are combining to heighten the profile of this critical labor component: an increasingly tight talent market and an increasingly bilingual customer base.
In a low-unemployment environment, springmakers face the same need for workers as other industries. “Many employers now find they can’t hire a sufficient number of capable people, or they can’t get anyone at all,” reports Tom Maloney, a human resources educator specializing in the Hispanic work force at Cornell University’s Department of Applied Economics and Management. The only solution for many, according to Maloney, is to look for workers from Mexico as well as El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.
At Keats Southwest, an El Paso, TX, manufacturer with 50 employees, some 80 percent of the work force is Hispanic. In contrast with some other manufacturers, nearly all of the company’s Hispanic workers are long-time residents of the local area rather than temporary workers from Mexico. Part of the reason is company history: When Keats entered the market in 1994, the metal stamping and spring industry was new to the area. Unemployment was higher than what was normal throughout much of the rest of the country. Company president Matt Keats found the Hispanic workers “very eager to learn” from the company’s in-house training. The result was a loyal, local work force.
The favorable Keats experience is not unique. Interest in Hispanic workers has only grown as they’ve proven themselves capable and enthusiastic. “Hispanic workers have a positive attitude and a strong work ethic,” says Maloney.
Meeting Customer Demand
Hispanic workers help employers serve Spanish-speaking customers. This is the case at Keats Southwest, which came into existence when its Chicago parent, Keats Manufacturing, recognized the potential of selling to “maquilas” (short for “maquiladoras,” factories operating in Mexico under preferential tariff programs established by the U.S. and Mexico). “Hispanic workers are especially valuable in our sales and customer service departments, where the ability to speak Spanish is a huge help,” says Keats. “Our maquila customers feel more comfortable dealing with company reps who understand their language.”
At Vulcan Spring & Mfg. Co., Telford, PA, a contingent of workers from Columbia are a big help to sales efforts. “We sell to Mexico and Spain,” points out company president Scott Rankin. “Some of our Spanish-speaking people worked their way up through the factory and now have positions in the office where they handle overseas calls from individuals who speak the same language. And the great thing is that our Spanish-speaking employees are very knowledgeable about our products since they did just about every job in the factory.”
The role of the Hispanic worker will only continue to grow in importance. With some 40 million residents accounting for 14 percent of the population, Latinos now comprise the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States according to the Pew Hispanic Center, based in Washington, D.C. Latinos are expected to account for half the growth of the U.S. labor force between now and 2020.
Diversity does not come without cost. In many cases, organizations hiring more Hispanics are confronted with a new round of communications problems. “Taking steps to overcome the language barrier shows respect and helps your business function better,” advises Maloney. A growing number of managers are learning some rudimentary Spanish, such as phrases useful in a work setting. And employers may need to hire Spanish interpreters to foster understanding during complex discussions.
It’s important to assure the presence of supervisors with knowledge of Spanish. “While most of the Hispanic people here do have a knowledge of English, it does help to have managers who can train them in their own language,” notes Rankin. “If you don’t have that, you don’t get the work force.”
In the quality-control department at Keats, inspectors are often more comfortable communicating in Spanish because the bilingual employees are more fluent in that language.
For their part, Hispanic workers need to increase their mastery of English. “Only 53 percent of Hispanics say they speak English well,” reports Myelita Melton, president of Speakeasy Communications, Mooresville, NC, a training organization specializing in occupational Spanish programs. One solution is formal training in VESL, or “Vocational English as a Second Language.”
Vulcan encourages the Hispanic workers to improve their command of English. “We reimburse expenses when our Hispanic workers attend schools to learn English,” says Rankin. “Many of the employees do take advantage of the offer.”
Of course, notes Rankin, improving language skills can help employees in the larger job market. “We know that for some employees this is a stepping stone for other employment, but that’s okay: If we can help someone out that’s what we’re here for.”
Formal instruction is not the only solution. Employers can encourage on-the-job language instruction. “You don’t have to be a qualified instructor to teach something,” advises Donna Poisl of Gastonia, NC, an author of guidebooks for immigrants. “You can start on an informal basis, during lunch breaks for example.” Poisl suggests that each day employees knowledgeable in English teach a few words to their Hispanic colleagues; those knowledgeable in Spanish can reciprocate.
The language barrier becomes particularly dangerous when it increases the risk of injury. “Employers need to communicate good safety practices to employees who may not be proficient in English,” warns attorney Sara Goldsmith Schwartz, president of Schwartz Hannum, Andover, MA, a law firm that defends business clients and nonprofit organizations in employment-related litigation. Failure to provide adequate instruction can lead to fatalities and costly litigation for negligence if someone gets hurt on the job. Provide safety manuals in the employees’ native languages, advises Schwartz. “Hire an expert to assure the accurate translation of your safety manual.”
Not all employers have been successful in this risky area. “The injury rate is very high for Hispanic employees, and we suspect it has to do with the language barrier,” reports Carlos Conejo, president of Multicultural Associates, Thousand Oaks, CA, a consulting organization specializing in the Hispanic work force. Conejo recommends employers make sure all workers can read and understand safety words encountered in signs such as “Danger, High Voltage” or “Keep Hands Away.”
Here to Stay
As these comments suggest, in many cases employers will need to develop new skills to meet the challenge of a changing work force. The alternative is unacceptable, for no employer can turn a profit with a dysfunctional organization that fails to meet customer expectations. Donna Poisl puts it this way: “I don’t think this country would work if the Hispanic employees went away.”