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Sunday, February 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Job Market

New cultures, challenges: It's a polyglot world

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Soon after he arrived at the upscale Wegmans Food Markets store in Dulles, Va., last year, executive chef Llewellyn Correia discovered that many of the 120 employees he supervised had not been attending the company's mandatory safety and sanitation classes.

The reason? "The courses were in English, and many of my employees don't speak English," he said.

Correia said some of his Asian cooks needed training in U.S. food-handling standards, which are more rigorous than the ones in their home countries and more likely to be enforced by government inspectors.

"It's very hard to break old habits," he said.

The lack of training, he said, also was raising safety issues among some employees who were posing a danger to themselves and their co-workers. "We had lots of issues like slips and falls," he said.

Today, the Dulles Wegmans offers a Web-based version of its safety and sanitation courses in Mandarin and Spanish, in addition to English — just one nod the supermarket says it is making to a multilingual workplace in which more than 200 of its 650 employees do not speak English as their primary language.

Where English is a foreign language


At the Wegmans in Dulles, Va., more than 200 of 650 workers do not speak English as their primary language. To help everyone get along and do a better job, the store:

Provides job training in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

Offers workers courses in English as a second language.

Has a course in Spanish for managers.

Shows on employees' nametags whether they speak a language other than English to help non-English-speaking workers and customers.

The Washington Post

Managers at large retailers such as the Dulles Wegmans say hiring immigrant workers makes good business sense, filling low-paying jobs that many U.S.-born workers don't want with employees motivated to move up through the ranks as they learn the language.

With English speakers, "You train somebody and — boom — they leave. You lose a lot of money actually training people," Correia said.

Having a polyglot workforce can also boost sales and build loyalty among non-English-speaking customers who can ask a question — Are the Pepsi 12-packs still on sale? — in their native tongues.

But it also means grappling with such management challenges as how to ensure that a miscommunication does not lead to an accident or regulatory violation, give orders to employees who speak far better Tagalog than English, or help people who once lived two oceans apart work together behind the same deli counter.

"Sometimes it's tough. You know, the one-on-one communication, getting your point across," Mike Provo, a Dulles Wegmans manager, said as he surveyed a row of cashiers whose first languages were Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu. "It takes a little bit more time and a little bit more effort and patience."

Because of an improved job market, non-English speakers are in more demand, said economist Stephen Fuller, who tracks employment trends as director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

"Employers are having to dig deeper into the labor pool," he said.

The challenges of managing a multicultural workforce have spawned a cottage industry of outside consultants, in-house specialists, book and magazine publishers, and others.

Wegmans, based in Rochester, N.Y., has retained language instructors for its Dulles and Fairfax, Va., stores to teach their employees a bit more English and their managers un poco Espaqol.

"The English class was important to me because ... ," said entry-level cook Rosa Martinez, a Honduran immigrant. She paused to consider how to finish the sentence in English, then continued with a smile: "Porque necesito Ingles en mi trabajo" (because I need English in my job).

Wal-Mart has started an "Office of Diversity" that holds regular seminars to "instill in all managers a better understanding of the different cultures," the company says.

"It's almost like working at the U.N. here now," said Dempsey Bell, co-manager of the Wal-Mart in Sterling, Va., where 32 languages are spoken by the store's employees. "The diversity is great for us because our customers are becoming more diverse and, if they need some help in the store, we can usually find an employee who speaks their language."

A New Jersey company called DiversityInc Media LLC sells training videos, a 539-page how-to manual and a glossy magazine named DiversityInc. Consultants such as Ivy Planning Group of Rockville, Md., offer seminars on how to build, manage and make money with a diverse workforce.

"We tell companies: Most of your work is around driving revenue and remaining profitable, and if you are going to remain profitable and serve customers, we've got to figure this thing out," said Ivy's president, Janet Crenshaw Smith, whose clients have included Pepco, Hilton Hotels and Lockheed Martin.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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