Bosses learn espanol to boost effectiveness

Language: Supervisors take Spanish classes to better communicate with the growing Hispanic segment of employees with limited English skills.

January 05, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

A foreman with Danis Environmental Industries Inc. used to point a finger at each eye to remind his Spanish-speaking crew to wear safety goggles.

Inspectors at the Maryland State Highway Administration would draw diagrams in the dirt at construction sites to give instructions to workers, many of whom hail from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

At Chevy's Fresh Mex, a Mexican restaurant in Arundel Mills mall, the managers once communicated with its mostly Hispanic kitchen staff by using hand signals and gestures.

But now, Spanish is increasingly being spoken at these and other work sites.

As the number of Hispanics in the state's work force swells, a growing number of employers are sending their English-speaking employees, usually those at management level, back to the classroom to learn basic Spanish tailored to the job.

Some Chevy's employees took a restaurant-Spanish course. Maryland highway inspectors learned construction lingo. Target Corp. sent executives from several stores in the Baltimore-Washington area to learn Spanish.

"It's a good way to connect with the community, and it's also a smart business decision," said Brie Heath, a Target spokeswoman.

Maryland joins communities across the country that are responding to demographic changes that are transforming the way people communicate at work.

"The amazing thing is, truly, this is all over the country," said J. David Edwards, executive director of the Washington-based National Council for Languages and International Studies.

"Immigration has become so significant that, 10 years ago, we would have only seen it in Washington, D.C., or New York. But now we're seeing it in rural areas and places we wouldn't expect."

Data from the 2000 Census showed Hispanics in America more than doubled during the 1990s to 35.3 million, rivaling blacks as the nation's largest minority group. The number of Maryland Hispanic residents increased 82 percent during that time, and now represents 4 percent of the population.

Hispanics make up 11 percent of the nation's labor force. Many hold low-skilled jobs, such as those in the housekeeping, hospitality, construction and farming industries.

Companies are now realizing it's not just enough to hire these workers. Being able to talk with Spanish-speaking employees creates a more efficient and safer work environment, supervisors and managers said.

"If people are respected and spoken to in their own language, they're going to produce a better product," said Joe Shatz, who teaches workplace Spanish classes at Baltimore County Community College. "It's more efficient because you don't have to use hand signals and gestures that make you look stupid."

As other workers began to leave the construction industry for higher-skilled jobs in the 1990s, contractors began turning to Hispanics to fill the gap.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors began offering Spanish classes two years ago to foremen and other supervisors. About 60 people have participated in eight classes.

"Initially, the thought was they needed to learn English, but the growing sentiment is it needs to be a two-way street to be effective," said Mike Henderson, the group's president. "Safety was our primary concern, but day-to-day function is also important."

One company experienced a 40 percent increase in work productivity after the classes, Henderson said.

Language experts also said having the boss learn Spanish improves worker morale.

"Better communication would be likely to lead to better productivity overall, but it also contributes to the spirit of the workplace," said Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington nonprofit language and culture group.

"It's a morale booster to have the people you work for show enough interest to learn your language."

At the water treatment plant in Laurel one recent afternoon, Spanish-speaking workers in hard hats worked next to English-speaking counterparts. About 60 percent of the workers employed at the Danis construction site are Hispanic.

Foreman Brian Porter joked with Omar Martinez, a construction worker from El Salvador, and Alex Garcia, a fellow foreman from Honduras. Porter said that, after taking Spanish classes with 14 other co-workers, the word he uses most often is: Andale! Or "hurry up!"

The idea of workplace-Spanish classes is to give workers enough language skills to get through the workday. In most cases, instructors come to the work site and teach 50 or so basic phrases over a few weeks of classes.

Anne Arundel Community College began offering the classes two years ago, after its regular Spanish classes began filling up with people who needed the language for their job.

They now offer classes intended for construction workers, police, nurses, hospitality workers, human resources officials, dental technicians and administrative assistants.

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