Special Report on Training & Development Powering Up a Hispanic Workforce

By Charlotte Huff

May. 20, 2009

Officials at Florida Power & Light Co. preferred not to dally until national demographic trends eroded the core of their nuclear expertise: their employees. The median age of a nuclear energy worker had reached 48, according to data from the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry lobbying group. Up to 35 percent of existing employees nationally will qualify for retirement within the next five years.

Florida Power & Light had traditionally hired through several routes for its nuclear plant in South Florida, including recruiting former military personnel, says James Auld, industry and community training coordinator for the 11,000-employee company. Since those employees usually relocated from elsewhere, they were prone to later jump ship, fleeing Florida’s hothouse climate or moving back closer to family.

So officials began to brainstorm several years ago about ways to better cultivate local talent. That meant reaching out to the predominantly Hispanic community living near the nuclear plant, which is about 25 miles south of Miami. The result: a partnership with nearby Miami Dade College that has already produced its first class of graduates, with more in the pipeline, and a growing waiting list.

Teaming up with a nearby community college is only one of various strategies that corporate employers in Florida and elsewhere are implementing to better train and support Hispanic employees, a demographic group that’s poised to constitute a significant portion of the labor force’s backbone.

Within the next decade, one out of every four new U.S. workers will have legally emigrated from Latin America, according to a recent analysis of federal data. Training programs, though, shouldn’t be limited to English classes for entry-level employees, multicultural experts say. Initiatives also should incorporate math skills, computer basics and, as Hispanic employees are promoted into supervisory roles, additional training and mentorship efforts.

By 2016, 16.4 percent of U.S. workers will identify themselves as Hispanic, compared with 9.5 percent in 1996, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Companies ignore these trends—even amid the current economic downturn—at their own peril, says Mariita Arosemena Conley, who leads Hispanic Source, a Chicago-based firm specializing in Hispanic cultural awareness and diversity training.

After the recession lifts, “the landscape is going to be different,” she says. “You will have baby boomers retiring. And that younger workforce—you can see it now at job fairs. You go to a job fair today and it’s a sea of brown faces.”

Training at the ground floor
Although no racial or ethnic group has been immune to the recession, job losses have hit Hispanic workers particularly hard, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of Census Bureau data. By the fourth quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate had reached 9.5 percent among U.S.-born Hispanics and was 8 percent among foreign-born Hispanics, compared with 6.6 percent for the workforce overall. That rising unemployment rate coincided with the downturn in construction that began two years ago, says Rakesh Kochhar, the Pew center’s associate director for research. “Since then, it’s only picked up steam,” he says.

But some Hispanic employees may actually be in greater demand in the years to come, says Louis Nevaer, an economist who helped author the 2007 book HR and the New Hispanic Workforce. In some industries outside construction and restaurant work, companies are disproportionately laying off older workers, he says. As a result, managers will find themselves leading a noticeably different workforce in the years ahead, one with less institutional memory and younger workers who are more likely to be Hispanic, he says.

To date, though, a lack of education has limited advancement for some Hispanics. Among all major racial and ethnic groups, Hispanics are least likely to hold even a high school degree. The resulting gaps in basic skills can fuel turnover, which is costly for employers and employees alike, says Jeannine La Prad, president of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. The nonprofit research organization, which is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, highlighted the Florida Power & Light initiative and a handful of others in analyzing the role of corporate partnerships in advancing immigrant Hispanic workers who had low skills.

In her work, La Prad has noticed a recurring pattern: The newly hired employees “were engaged initially in the work, but did not have some of the skills that were needed to successfully perform their jobs,” she says. “The businesses became frustrated and the people became frustrated. And we were seeing both people leaving and companies letting people go.”

Programs that combine education and work can help bridge that skills gap and can also address the need among some Hispanics to start working at a relatively young age, La Prad says.

At Miami Dade College, the two-year associate’s degree in electric power technology quickly launches students into paying work. After focusing the first year on a core curriculum, the students work over the summer at Florida Power & Light before returning to Miami Dade to specialize in a particular area of the nuclear industry. As many as 20 of the graduates who meet the academic qualifications, along with demonstrating on-the-job proficiency, will be hired at a starting salary typically of $45,000 to $50,000 annually, Auld says.

In the first class, 11 of the 12 graduates were Hispanic, according to a Florida Power & Light spokeswoman. Roughly two-thirds of the 26 to 30 students expected to graduate this spring also are Hispanic. It’s not uncommon for graduates to be first-generation college students, Auld says, recalling that the first ceremony occurred “with big tears and smiles—it was quite an event.”

In the years ahead, the partnership will save the power company in recruiting costs, Auld says, although Florida Power & Light officials declined to provide specifics. Plus, the collaboration will reduce the need for on-the-job training. Meanwhile, power company officials essentially get to run a two-year job interview, he says. “By the time they’ve graduated from this program, we’ve identified those with the aptitude to be successful.” It’s a win not only for the company, but for the community and college as well, Auld says.

Beyond teaching English
Language training often forms a cornerstone of training for entry-level Hispanic employees, particularly those who are first-generation U.S. residents. Increasingly, though, companies are realizing that basic language instruction should not be confined to Spanish speakers, says Bob Garcia, a human resources and training consultant at Gagen MacDonald, a Chicago-based employee engagement firm. “I’m seeing companies saying, ‘We need to provide English as a second language, but we also need Spanish language for frontline supervisors,’ ” he says.

Garcia, who is bilingual and specializes in multicultural education, also believes that cultural training should run along a two-way track. He successfully made that case earlier this year to a large manufacturing company that has approximately 4,000 employees. Along with training entry-level Hispanic employees about the importance of timeliness, avoiding absenteeism and other job expectations, the company also provided non-Hispanic employees and supervisors with some background on Hispanic customs and traditions, Garcia says.

For example, it’s important that managers understand the significance of the quinceañera, the coming-of-age celebration of a daughter’s 15th birthday. “It’s always an honor for a manager or a supervisor to be invited to that,” Garcia says. Thus, such an invitation should not be lightly turned down, and if managers can’t attend, they should later ask about the festivities, he says. “For me, this all comes down to respecting tradition and respecting someone else’s culture, no matter what it is.”

As Hispanic employees move into supervisory roles, the need for other types of training may emerge, although the necessity is more subtle and less likely to be addressed, Garcia says. “It’s definitely a missing component,” he says. For first-time managers, the learning curve can become significantly steeper when an extended network of friends and family work together at the same company or possibly on the same factory floor, Garcia says. As an example, Garcia casts himself as an employee in a close-knit work group who is offered a $3-an-hour raise to assume a supervisory role and takes the job.

“The thing is, I just know how to work hard,” he says. “I don’t know how to manage people. And now I’m managing my best friend, my son and two of my nephews.”

Cultural conflicts also can develop within work sites. Hispanic culture is not monolithic, and problems can crop up if the supervisor is originally from a different country than the crew being supervised, Nevaer says. In that respect, training and promoting talented employees from within not only can help improve long-term retention, but also can potentially bypass such cultural rifts, he says.

In some circumstances, relatively little training is required to produce a visible payoff, says Kim Kooy, a human resources coordinator at The Decc Co., an industrial coating company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of Decc’s team leaders, she says, had “marginal English” before recently taking an ESL class.

“Afterwards, she started e-mailing notes to us and using the intercom more in English,” she says. “I think she knew more than she let on that she knew—she just didn’t have the confidence to use it.”

Employers that shortchange training and support of talented Hispanic employees risk watching them migrate into more supportive industries in the years ahead, La Prad says. And that’s not good strategic planning, she says. Auld agrees. “I think common sense dictates that once this economy turns around, and those 401(k)s start heading in the right direction, we’ll see folks retiring again,” he says.

Auld’s not losing any sleep about that, though. As of this writing, the waiting list for Miami Dade’s next class in electrical power technology, limited to about 40 students, ran more than 200 names long.

Workforce Management, May 18, 2009, p. 25-29Subscribe Now!

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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