Advertisement

In Job Market, Bilingual Is a Bonus : Employers and Employees Reap Benefits From Workers’ Foreign-Language Skills

Los Angeles Times

Being bilingual is an advantage in today’s job market--Christopher Cox can attest to that. If he weren’t fluent in a second language, he never would have become a Spanish-speaking Beetlejuice.

Cox, 23, was hired to impersonate the obnoxious, hollow-eyed apparition after the Universal Studios theme park issued a casting call for bilingual performers four months ago. Like many Los Angeles companies, Universal Studios puts a premium on finding employees who can communicate with customers from around the globe and the city’s own multicultural population.

By segueing effortlessly from “I’m the ghost with the most” to “Soy el fantasmo con el maximo” during his audition, Cox clinched the Beetlejuice job and joined a work force that also boasts a bilingual Barney Rubble from “The Flintstones,” bilingual tour guides and bilingual sales representatives.

“The word bilingual is something I look for in every classified ad because it is one of my most important skills,” said Cox, a Westside resident who learned Spanish through classes at his high school and Ohio University. “The more darts you have to throw at the dartboard, the greater chance you have of hitting a bull’s-eye,” he said.

Advertisement

It takes only a casual glance through local help-wanted ads and the swelling rolls of foreign-language courses for working adults to confirm the wisdom of every parent who ever pleaded with their offspring to practice their Spanish, Korean, Japanese or German. From sales and social work to nursing and banking, there are an increasing number of jobs in which dual-language ability is desired, if not required. According to Berlitz International, 79% of the Los Angeles-area residents who enrolled in its language classes last year cited job-related reasons for their attendance, up from 66% four years ago.

Health care, finance and government-related fields such as teaching and public safety are the areas where the demand for bilingual workers is greatest, employment specialists say. But manufacturers, retailers and law or real estate firms are also diversifying their staffs with different tongues, as part of an effort to service Californians who speak little or no English, or to conduct business in Latin American or Asian countries.

*

A sample from the classifieds: New York Life Insurance Co., in need of a medical claims examiner in Camarillo, indicates that being bilingual in Spanish would be “helpful” to a successful applicant. Minimed Technologies, a Sylmar manufacturer of medical supplies for diabetics, says bilingual ability is “preferred” for its telephone customer service opening. The Baby Toytown store in Reseda has a sales position for which proficiency in both Spanish and English is “necessary.” Nielsen Media Research, the television ratings company, is hiring technicians to install electronic information-gathering equipment in area households, jobs for which bilingual Spanish/English or Asian language/English skills are “a plus.”

Advertisement

“When we have someone who is fluent in both English and Spanish and who has good skills, we can place them as fast as we can get get them,” said Mark McComb, North Hollywood branch manager of the Select Personnel employment agency. McComb estimates that one out of every five secretarial and light manufacturing jobs he helps fill these days specifically call for fluency in English and another language, usually Spanish. “If you were to put two people against each other with equal qualifications, all things being equal, the person who is bilingual will get the nod,” he said.

*

Job applicants, however, do not usually come in such well-rounded packages. Despite the panoply of languages spoken in Southern California, local employers say they find it surprisingly difficult to recruit workers who are both truly bilingual and have business experience. Candidates may overestimate their foreign-language or English-speaking talents or incorrectly assume that because they can hold casual conversations in two tongues, they can also read or write well enough for a job.

Caroline Shannon, personnel director at the Warner Center Marriott hotel in Woodland Hills, learned that lesson firsthand when she advertised for a Spanish-speaking assistant last year. The position required explaining personnel rules to hotel workers who were native Spanish speakers, so Shannon said her litmus test for the job was whether her 25 applicants could credibly explain the hotel’s benefits package in Spanish.

Advertisement

“About half were truly bilingual,” Shannon said. “I had a lot of people who said, ‘I could get by.’ You would ask them, can you get by explaining a book of benefits and they are like, well, probably not.”

In fields where the need for qualified bilingual workers outstrips the supply, employers sometimes compensate by hiring people who possess the necessary language skills and offering them on-the-job computer or technical training, said Brian Gerard, whose Sherman Oaks employment agency helps banks and insurance companies find college-educated workers.

Sometimes businesses have to offer bilingual applicants higher pay to attract the right people.

With a shortage of about 2,500 certified bilingual teachers, the Los Angeles Unified School District offers $5,000 in annual incentive pay to teachers who are qualified to work with children with limited English. At Kaiser Permanente facilities throughout Southern California, employees who use their Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese for as little as half an hour of every eight-hour workday earn 5% more.

Advertisement

“We pay a premium for that because it’s an added skill,” said Scott Nostaja, a senior vice president at Universal Studios, where bilingual tour guides earn “significantly” more than their co-workers who speak only English. “If we could have a work force that was totally bilingual it would be a terrific thing.”

While Universal Studios hires bilingual workers for the international tourists who make up about 30% of the park’s attendance, other service-related companies need employees who can speak more than one language because of Los Angeles’ incredible linguistic diversity. In the San Fernando Valley, there were 315,000 people who spoke Spanish at home when the 1990 census was conducted; another 34,000 spoke Indo-European languages such as Armenian and Farsi, while 19,800 spoke Tagalog and 17,000 spoke Korean.

*

Such demographics prompted Maureen Clemmons, a director at Sebastian International in Woodland Hills, to take drastic action. Clemmons oversees the makeup and hair care company’s North American sales services division, which performs telemarketing, consumer affairs, order entry and customer service tasks for the United States, Canada, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Eighteen months ago, she decided that every new hire in her division would have to be able to speak a second language--any language. She also started sponsoring twice weekly Spanish classes for staff members who were not already bilingual, including herself.

Advertisement

“Hair salons are a direct reflection of the demographics of Los Angeles and the country. If you are in a Vietnamese neighborhood, you have Vietnamese hairdressers. As a company, we cannot afford not to be able to talk to these customers,” Clemmons said.

One of the people Clemmons hired was Sudi Parvaresh, 41, a native of Iran who--in addition to being fluent in English and Farsi--can speak some French, German, Arabic and Turkish. Parvaresh recalled that when she arrived in the United States in 1981, the fact that she spoke several languages “was not a plus” and rarely came up in job interviews. But at Sebastian, her linguistic virtuosity earned Parvaresh a starting salary that was 26% higher than those of her fellow order-entry clerks and played a part in her speedy promotion to supervisor.

“It brings out the best in you, knowing that something you do have is actually valued,” Parvaresh said.

Clemmons said that with eight languages represented in her department now, her bilingual mandate has already paid off in increased sales. “We have people who only want to deal with us because a lady here speaks Farsi,” she said. Still, Clemmons acknowledges that she made some early missteps, such as hiring workers whose English skills left something to be desired. “The English-speaking customers got very irate,” she said. “When I hire someone now, they have to be fluent in two languages, not semi-fluent in one or the other.”

Advertisement

*

Supervisors at Kaiser Permanente’s Panorama City medical center ran into a similar problem after bilingual skills became required for some positions, a policy that costs the HMO about $1 million annually in extra pay companywide. Concerned that some of the 200 workers based at the Panorama City facility earning 5% more were not actually fluent in Spanish, officials there asked Berlitz last summer to test the staff members and discovered that about 10% needed remedial training, said Ray Aguado, assistant personnel director.

“They found out that some people were using street Spanish, not proper Spanish, or were weak on the medical terminology,” Aguado said. “They could get by and communicate with patients, but we felt that for them to qualify for [higher pay], there should be some sort of standard.” Employees whose Spanish still was judged to be deficient after 12 weeks of company-financed instruction were dropped from the bilingual program, he said.

Companies that do a lot of exporting often prefer to hire foreign-born and foreign-educated candidates over native Angelenos for jobs requiring contact with international customers. First- and second-generation Californians who were raised in Spanish-speaking or Japanese-speaking households, for instance, may lose out to more recent immigrants whose written and oral Spanish or Japanese is considered more appropriate for professional use.

Advertisement

“I know a lot of people here who speak Spanish, but it is not the Spanish I would use to do business with,” said Amy Vanni, 52, an administrative assistant with Advanced Semiconductor Inc., a North Hollywood company that exports electronic components. Vanni, who was raised in Ecuador, works in the firm’s Latin American division and is currently helping her boss fill an administrative job that, like hers, requires daily phone contact with South American customers. As of last week, about 70 people had applied for the job and “there are not that many that speak good Spanish,” she said.

*

Some employers say that it’s also critical to hire people who are “bicultural,” meaning they understand the customs and traditions of their foreign-born clientele.

William Park, 44, a Century 21 real estate agent in Northridge, said familiarity with both the language and culture of Korean property owners has enabled him and his wife, Michelle, to build a successful practice. The Parks immigrated to California from Seoul 16 years ago. Before William learned enough English to pass his real estate exam, he worked as a machinist. Like many bilingual car sales people and attorneys, the Parks advertise their services in foreign-language newspapers, giving them access to clients their non-bilingual colleagues do not have.

Advertisement

“A lot of Koreans refuse to go to Americans [when they are house hunting] because there are cultural differences. I know when they come to me the No. 1 priority for Koreans is schools, so I have all the information on the SAT scores and that makes them comfortable,” Park said.

While workers and employers alike generally applaud the move toward workplaces where many languages are spoken, there is still room for progress.

Irma Rodriguez, director of the language rights program of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said that at many nursing homes employees are sometimes reprimanded for using their native languages to converse with co-workers on the job. Workers who are hired because of their bilingual ability may also find their opportunities for advancement limited because their employers think they are valuable only for that one skill, she said.

*

Advertisement

Joaquin Talleda, 37, a South Pasadena immigration lawyer who is president of the local Cuban-American Bar Assn., said that on the surface, the large law firms where he used to work appreciated his ability to speak Spanish. “Every now and then the partners would say you have this great asset, let’s exploit it,” he recalled. But when Talleda tried to bring Spanish-speaking clients to his old firm, the partners were never interested in representing them.

“My impression is that most of it was lip service,” Talleda said.


Advertisement