Stocking Language Supplies

Growing numbers of Alabama companies conduct business internationally, and growing numbers of international companies conduct business in Alabama.

The problem? Not everyone speaks the same language.

As Alabama becomes a more global marketplace, human resources professionals say it’s becoming more important to employ workers with broader language skills. For instance, Atherotech Diagnostics Lab in Birmingham often needs workers who speak both English and Spanish fluently. Decatur-based Toray Carbon Fibers America Inc., the North American location of a Japanese company, employs three interpreters to translate Japanese-originated documents for English-speaking workers.

Such examples are widespread and expected to increase. “There will be a stronger need for bilingual employees in the future in certain industries, ” says Jeff Powers, SPHR, senior manager of human resources and general affairs at Toray Carbon Fibers America. “The make up of the workforce is changing, and bilingual skills will be helpful in the future.”

As more employers require employees with bilingual — or trilingual — skills, the demand for translators, interpreters, language instructors and others who help fulfill those needs has consistently increased during the past several years.

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“The language service industry in the United States has grown by at least 7 percent annually since it was first tracked in 2006, ” says William P. Rivers, Ph.D., executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for Language and International Studies. “This includes the Great Recession. We’ve seen growth ahead of the overall economy throughout this period.”

The language service industry employs more than 200, 000 full-timers in the private sector, in addition to a large number of freelancers. In the public sector, an estimated 300, 000 teachers, researchers and government workers at the local, state and federal levels are working in language services. This growth is driven by the growth of the information-based, 21st century economy, as well as national security needs, Rivers says.

As Alabama’s demographics continue to change, with an influx of immigrants from Central American, European and Asian countries, and as more Alabama-based businesses pursue international contracts, additional languages will become increasingly important for workers in the state, says Fran Bostick, SPHR, vice president of human resources at Atherotech. For employers, that means seeking new avenues for recruiting or acquiring new resources to train current workers on needed language skills.

For job seekers, adding language skills now may boost marketability in the future.

Each industry or company has different language needs, which often depend on where international subsidiaries or suppliers are located, as well as local demographics, says Mary Risner, associate director of outreach and business programs at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Currently, “Portuguese and Chinese are hot languages these days as [Brazil and China] are among the fastest growing emerging markets, ” she says. “As companies in the United States target immigrant communities, this can determine the language needed. For example, there is a growing need for expertise in marketing products to the Hispanic population.”

As Alabama-based companies struggle to communicate with a growing Hispanic population, Spanish has become an important language for employees. At Atherotech, for example, “being able to speak fluent Spanish is helpful and necessary for certain positions, such as customer service rep, registered dieticians and medical science consultant, ” Bostick says. “These are the positions where employees are most likely to speak with physicians, physician office personnel and patients who may be Spanish speaking.”

In the Mobile area, the language most needed by local employers is Spanish, and some Asian languages are also in demand, says Leida Javier-Ferrell, director of the Center for Workforce Development at the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. The types of jobs available for people with such language skills vary widely and include call center personnel, healthcare providers and court systems, according to Javier-Ferrell. When employers don’t need full-time bilingual staffers, or when such staffers are not available, translation services and independent translators are available to fill the gaps, she says.

In Alabama-based headquarters of international businesses, it often isn’t necessary for workers to speak the language of the company’s origin. “Knowing Japanese has its advantages but is not a requirement when hiring for chemical process engineer or operator or clerk or supervisor or manager or accountant, ” says Forrest Keith, public relations manager at Daikin America in Decatur.

Toray marks the way in two languages.

However, even if workers don’t need to know the language, they often need to understand the culture of their company’s country of origin. “The ability to understand the culture of your ex pat is extremely important when working with people from another country, ” says Toray’s Powers.

Because language study usually incorporates cultural understanding, it can give employees at globally owned companies an advantage. For most American Toray employees, identifying with Japanese culture hasn’t been difficult. “The Japanese culture has very similar values, as the Southern culture, ” Powers says. “It is a culture that is built on trust and honor. Our employees understand that the United States is made up of many different cultures. Our employees have always been very happy to explain our culture to our expatriates and to better understand the Japanese culture.”

Employers who need workers with specific language skills have more avenues than ever before to locate viable candidates. and the American Translators Association both offer job clearinghouses for translators, and the U.S. government advertises its needs on, Rivers says. “In addition to advertising in online services or the company website, employers can advertise at university language departments offering the specific language desired, ” Risner says.

For translation services, Alabama companies don’t need to cross the border. Huntsville-based Foreign Language Services has been providing translation services for over 25 years, cultivating an international network of freelance translators.

But Alabama human resource managers often must look outside the state’s borders to build their own bilingual staff. For instance, Atherotech is currently recruiting for a remote, Spanish-speaking registered dietician. In addition to posting the position on LinkedIn, Facebook, the company’s website and UAB’s website, recruiters have posted it as a remote position located in Miami, because there is a larger pool of Spanish speaking candidates there, Bostick says.

“When we have hired interpreters or translators, it has been a search similar to searching for an engineer, ” says Daikin’s Keith. “There seems to be plenty of candidates with bilingual skills in English-Japanese from which to choose. They usually are not local and must be relocated from afar to our community.”

For employers who don’t need to hire new staff but want to help their current employees to add new language skills, options are growing. College day classes may not be an option for full-time workers, says Risner, but “private language schools are a growing industry to fill this void through face-to-face and online courses.”

UAB language faculty members are working to develop more courses for languages for the professions. In Mobile, the public library has installed Mango language software to assist professionals in learning languages.

Many local community colleges offer occupational Spanish programs, and private language schools usually can tailor programs by language, job area and proficiency, Rivers says. To accommodate the schedules of working professionals, “Some private language schools offer hybrid courses, with on-line interaction and stand-alone supplemental resources, ” he says.

For companies employing non-native English speakers, there are plenty of options for helping employees ramp up their English skills. In the Mobile area, for instance, Bishop State Community College, Spring Hill College, the University of South Alabama, the Salvation Army and other faith-based organizations all offer English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, Javier-Ferrell says. In addition, the Hispanic American Business Association of the Gulf Coast has raised funds from the construction industry to deliver ESL classes to employees, and some employers, such as ship builder Austal, offer ESL classes, complete with their own paid teachers, on site for their skilled workers.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville. 

Nancy Mann Jackson

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