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Bilingualism Becoming A Skill You Can Take To The Bank

by Kate Woodsome

May 21, 2000
Copyright © 2000 HISPANIC LINK NEWS SERVICE. All Rights Reserved.

Fluency in Spanish and English is rapidly being identified in the U.S. marketplace -- particularly in the more professional job ranks -- as a skill both worthy and demanding of extra economic rewards.

Experts in fields ranging from education, media, marketing and international trade are nearly unanimous in acknowledging the need. And while some employers are still hesitant to pay extra for useful language skills and cultural knowledge, a trend is developing.

Signs are most evident in states with large Hispanic populations, including California, Texas, New Jersey, New York and Florida.

Hispanics in Miami-Dade who are proficient in English and Spanish earn an average of $7,000 more than monolingual workers who perform similar tasks, according to "Creating Florida's Multilingual Global Work Force,'' a study by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Miami.

As limited-English-speaking immigrants from Latin America continue spreading throughout the country, employment and efficiency experts offer lots of reasons why bilingual managers are becoming more and more critical to a company's or government agency's bottom line:

In communities with a mix of monolingual English- and monolingual Spanish-speakers, failure to staff adequately public-contact positions with bilingual personnel can cost large chunks of valuable staff time. In agribusiness, the service industries or building trades, a foreman's misunderstood direction can cost money or, worse, serious injury.

And as U.S. companies push to expand their markets globally, they're not likely to be very competitive unless they understand the language and culture of their potential customers. That's something many Miami-based businesses have mastered. Nearly 900 miles closer to 16 major Latin American cities than New York, Florida controls about 50 percent of all U.S. trade with the Caribbean and Central America.

"Companies missing bilingual workers can quantify the cost in lost opportunity more than dollars,'' says Jeff Sparshott, communications director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce.

The language study found that in Miami, Latino workers with bilingual fluency earn an annual average of $18,105, as opposed to $11,261 for their monolingual English-speaking counterparts.

In San Antonio and Jersey City, Hispanic bilingual workers also earn more than their monolingual peers, the study showed. However, it found salaries of monolingual-English workers in such cities as Houston, New York and Los Angeles higher than those who also speak Spanish with various degrees of proficiency.

In Los Angeles, city employees in designated bilingual positions receive a 2.75 percent salary bonus for translation services, and a 5.5 percent bonus if they use their interpreting and writing skills. Other California cities offer similar compensation.

"Whenever activities overlap with the public sector, you'll have a need for someone who has those skills,'' says Gail Thomas, assistant chief of the Los Angeles Public Safety Employment Division, which certifies the eligibility of workers to receive the bonuses.

With a continuing demand for bilingual teachers nationally, several school districts now offer hiring bonuses or other incentives. The Los Angeles Unified School District pays bilingual teachers a bonus of up to $5,000 annually. Once again, the marketplace demands it.

If one employer doesn't recognize, use and offer compensation for an employee's second-language skill, there's a growing risk that the employee will find someone else who does. And now that employee need look no further than the computer sitting on his or her desk. The Internet is becoming an easy way for bilingual workers to display their skills in the marketplace., a Web-based site linking Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking workers with companies in need of those language skills, has a growing list of successful connections, according to its founder, Eric Shannon.

Started in 1997, received some 160,000 hits in March, up from 80,000 in August of last year. The company lists positions paying an average of $57,000.

"If someone who's earning $65,000 is the right person, the perfect fit, that individual may be worth $85,000 to another employer,` Shannon says.

California-based Diverse Staffing Solutions (DSS) is another job-seeker resource that introduces highly skilled professional Latinos to corporate positions.

Although the company started six months ago, it already has initiated contracts with Disney Co., Nestle Corp. and GE Capital. All are searching for Latino and, most preferably, bilingual personnel.

Says DSS president Fred Flores, "In the media industry, for example, there is a tremendous need for bilingual people because of the amount of money that can be generated in those (bilingual) markets. In industries with large numbers of Spanish-speaking employees, bilingualism has become an essential value.''

Kate Woodsome is a reporter with the national newsweekly Hispanic Link Weekly Report, based in Washington, D.C. Reporter Oswaldo Zavala assisted her in researching this column.

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