A dual-language workplace
Employers turn to non-native English speakers to expand hiring pool

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

Nov. 22, 2017

 Heriberto Padron of Felss Rotaform stacks and organizes metal cylinders.
JKenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

NEW BERLIN — When it became increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions at Felss Rotaform about a decade ago, CEO David Gazzo knew he had to adopt a different hiring approach in order to keep his machines running and to fulfill orders. So he not only began to hire people with no manufacturing experience, he brought in workers who spoke little or no English.

A need to change

Gazzo said in about 2006 or 2007 when unemployment was very low and Felss Rotaform was in a growing mode, he struggled to find workers.

“At a certain point, I considered at that time, all of the employees were English-speaking only, and then at that time, I considered to hire Latinos. I got a couple of resumes, and originally there was some pushback between the other employees because of how are we going to communicate, how are we going to do the training, everything is going to get complicated. Well, at that time there weren’t too many choices. The only other choice is to leave the machine down. That’s not an option,” Gazzo said.

Initially, quite a bit of communication went through Gazzo, who is originally from Spain, and an engineer who is from Mexico, with the Latinos who were working on the production floor. But as their numbers grew at Felss Rotaform, an assistant was hired with one of her main functions being to facilitate communication. Now, all of the instructions, policies and handbooks are in English and Spanish.

Of the approximate 80 employees at Felss Rotaform, about half are Latino, with a larger percentage of them on the production floor. In the offices, of about 20 workers, four to five are Latino. Even with hiring Latinos, Gazzo said usually about 10 to 15 percent of positions remain open. To fulfill work contracts, employees work overtime and on weekends. Felss Rotaform has grown about 20 percent every year since about 2010.

 Celorio Bringas of Felss Rotaform does a routine maintenance check on the
swaging and press machine.
JKenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

Integrating a second language into a workplace

When it comes to conducting employee meetings, if the issue is simple, then the meeting is conducted in English at Felss Rotaform. But if it’s more complicated, such as regarding benefits or new policies, then the group will be broken into two and the same meeting will be conducted in Spanish and English.

“As the Latino population grew, we hired some employees who spoke both languages and today some of our most advanced technicians can speak dual language so our amount of employees who can handle both languages is big enough to be able to accommodate any new employee,” Gazzo said.

Dan Churchill, the manufacturing supervisor of the building products division for IP Molding who speaks Spanish fluently, said it can be hard to translate between the rank-and-file and management.

Churchill has worked at several places, including IP Moulding, where he is tapped to use his Spanish as a manager.

While someone needs to be tasked with translating written materials, he said terminology also needs to be learned. That he has often learned from the Latino workers.

“The Spanish-speaking people have been super helpful,” he said. “It’s rare for an American to speak reasonably good Spanish.”

Churchill also said he has never had an issue resulting from a cultural difference.

“People who do not speak English as a first language tend to adapt to our culture,” he said, adding that there are some things that are handled differently between the cultures, such as the amount of time requested for funeral leave.

Gazzo cautioned that any employer looking to hire more non-native English speakers needs to resolve conflicts before they arise.

“You need to pay a lot of attention to any potential sources of conflict, and we don’t have them, but many times I sense that if some situations don’t get stopped right away, they could escalate into something else,” Gazzo said, giving the example of some Latinos telling jokes in Spanish at lunch and a nearby non-Spanish speaker feeling annoyed.

Felss Rotaform has a policy that if you can speak English then you should make an effort to speak it when an English speaker is near or if you must speak in Spanish, not to become too loud.

“One of the values of our company is respect and that’s something that is very important for both groups: to be respectful with others’ values and cultural norms and language. I think that so far that we have had very, very few incidents of any friction between both groups and my intention is to keep it that way,” Gazzo said.

He also recommends that employers looking to hire beyond the native English speakers conduct workshops or do education at the company of how the changes will work and to stress that it’s important to have consistent behavior between the different groups of workers, so no one feels like a first- or second- class employee.

Most valuable employees

At Felss Rotaform, Gazzo said many of the Spanish-speaking employees are his most valuable. One man who has lived in the United States for about 14 to 15 years still doesn’t speak English, “but you don’t need to speak English to keep a machine running and he is able to keep machines running like no other.”

Churchill said hiring Latinos or workers who aren’t native English speakers could help a company looking to grow.

“By opening the workforce up to people of a different language and culture, they are able to open themselves up to a much larger labor market pool,” he said. “If you want to have more options to hire then you have to be more flexible to hire people which English is not their first language.”

And Churchill has found that the Spanish-speaking workers are loyal and responsive to leadership.

“It’s been an eye-opener to see people who speak different languages can also perform at a very high level if given the opportunity,” Gazzo said.