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HR managers and supervisors see growing need for language proficiency

As Mississippi changes, Spanish a valuable skill

Jones County in South Mississippi has an estimated 2,000 Hispanic workers. That means that their supervisors need at least a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish in order to communicate with their workers, but Spanish language skills are also important to a wide range of other businesses, as well as governmental sectors.

Hospitals need to be able to communicate with patients. Law enforcement and the courts may have need of interpreters or Spanish-speaking personnel. And even businesses like banks and grocery stores these days are likely to benefit from having the ability to communicate with Hispanic workers. Many businesses in Mississippi have signs up in both Spanish and English — a reflection of the state’s growth in the number of Hispanic workers in the state.

Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, said communication and culturalization skills for Hispanic workers are very important.

“In order for Hispanic workers to be able to perform satisfactorily, supervisors need to be able to communicate with them,” Stennett said. “Quite a few manufacturers and processors around here do have people on board, either Spanish-speaking people or people who have taken Spanish, in the human resource area and some of the supervisory positions.”

Command Spanish is taught throughout the year at Jones County Junior College. Shannon Campbell, director of the career resource center at the college, explains that command Spanish is intended to be primarily a one-way conversation where you ask questions to get answers that are ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or short responses.

“We offer that periodically throughout the year on an ongoing basis primarily in the evening because that is typically when people in the working world want to take classes,” Campbell said. “We normally have a good turnout for our classes. The classes are targeted to specific professions such as healthcare, which has needs that are different from those, for example, of education or law enforcement.”

The Mississippi Construction Education Foundation offers classes in construction Spanish.

“We developed this program last year because we realized more Hispanic workers were entering the construction job force, and there were a lot of issues being raised because of communication problems between the construction managers and workers,” said Mike Barkett, state director of training for the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation. “But getting people to sign up for classes is hard. When you are 40 to 50 years old, it is hard to pick up another language. Getting them enrolled in the construction Spanish course involves showing them the need. Once they realize it is beneficial to them — a foreman can now converse with laborers without an interpreter being available, or office workers can speak to workers regarding time sheets and work loads — it really makes a big difference for us.”

The construction Spanish courses are offered around the state whenever there are 10 to 15 people interested in taking the course. Barkett said they don’t teach Spanish; they teach construction Spanish, terms that a construction worker would use.

This past year, 100 people took the class and another 100 people in the construction industry are expected to take it this year. The class is four hours a night once a week for four weeks. A CD for the course is provided for people to listen to when commuting back and forth to work. Students also get pocket dictionaries and a manual called “Command Construction Spanish.”

Rachel Rutland, director of safety and health, Associated General Contractors of Mississippi, said the ability of superintendents to communicate with the large numbers of Hispanic workers is critical particularly in regard to safety and personal protective equipment.

“It is a federal mandate that construction managers are required to teach safety no matter what language the workers speak,” Rutland said. “So, what we have is not only trying to converse to get production done. The number of illness and injuries of Hispanic workers in the U.S. has dramatically increased, and OSHA is very much aware of that. If we have Spanish people on staff, OSHA wants to know that safety training is being communicated to them. And in most cases, that is not being done. It is a serious deficit.”

Rutland said that many construction companies like the Hispanic workers because they work hard and don’t whine about doing menial work. They will work long hours for less pay. But it is important that the safety record be improved for the Hispanic workers, some of whom come from countries where there is far less emphasis on safety.

AGC has helped by offering training to the Hispanic workers in Spanish, particularly in the area of fall protection. Falls are the number one cause of fatalities in construction.

“We have offered fall protection classes in Spanish, and we have translated a number of our videos and written materials into Spanish,” Rutland said. “So, pretty much everything we give out these days is bilingual. We’re trying to get the message out. Another thing we are looking at doing that other states have had success with is health and safety fairs. Those are done on Saturdays, inviting the Hispanic workers to teach them about their responsibility for their own safety and how they can participate to keep people safe in the workforce.

“Safety training for Hispanic workers is an ongoing effort, and we are constantly looking for new ways to do it. Since we are using them as laborers, we want to be able to keep them safe on our worksite. But it is a mammoth problem, and we have only just begun to scratch the surface.”

She agrees that it can be difficult to learn a new language, unless you have a gift for it. And there are many different dialects of Spanish depending on where the worker is from. But conversing with the workers in Spanish really gains their respect, and is well worth the effort, Rutland said.

As our society becomes more bi-lingual, learning Spanish can also be a wise career move.

“If I could speak Spanish fluently, I could double my salary,” Rutland said. “Someone in safety who is bi-lingual could make $100,000 to $150,000 easy. That is the kind of demand that we have.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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