The beef cattle industry is making greater use of Hispanic workers than ever before, particularly recent immigrants who speak little or no English. This trend is particularly evident in northern areas of the United States.
“Word is spreading quickly that there are a lot of advantages to using this workforce,” says Thomas R. Maloney, a senior extension specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “They come here with a very strong work ethic and they’re willing to do some of the harder jobs that local workers are less willing to do these days.”
Hispanic employees who recently emigrated from other countries also tend to be more satisfied with the wages paid by beef cattle producers than local employees. Additionally, Mr. Maloney says, employers often find Hispanic workers to be more dependable than domestic workers.
Trouble is, many beef cattle producers have yet to sufficiently tackle the language barrier. Language doesn’t get a lot of discussion, Mr. Maloney says, even though there is a direct correlation between effective employee communication, workplace safety and compliance with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points requirements, not to mention workplace productivity.
Indeed, many Hispanic workers come into this country without prior exposure to certain types of machinery, equipment and technology and therefore require extensive training. “Training always has been necessary for employees,” says Gonzalo Fernandez, a veterinarian with Bayer Animal Health. “But considering the rapid growth of Hispanic workers in the United States, and the language barrier between managers and employees, training is more necessary than ever.”
Dr. Fernandez says the proportion of U.S. farm workers of Hispanic ethnicity increased from 15.9 percent in 1983 to 47.4 percent in 2002. Nearly 80 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population speaks Spanish at home, he adds, and two-fifths of Mexican-born Americans do not speak English very well.
The training challenges involving Hispanic employees, of course, are not limited to beef cattle feedyards. Cornell University recently conducted a survey of Hispanic workers in 60 dairy farms across the state of New York. “We asked the workers how well they spoke English and 57 percent said none or not very well,” Mr. Maloney says.
“That’s not necessarily as frightening a figure as it sounds, so long as there are managers in the business who speak Spanish,” he continues. The key, however, is to identify those Hispanic employees who have an ability to learn English, as well as those native English-speaking employees who have an ability and willingness to learn Spanish, and to provide both sets of employees with proper training to bridge the language barrier.
“It’s rare to find a group of Hispanic workers where everybody is learning English,” Mr. Maloney says. “But businesses need to figure out who are going to be their liaisons with the Spanish speakers.” It’s unrealistic to think that people who are already working 60 to 70 hours a week are going to have time to take college language courses or dedicate significant amounts of time to language learning activities, he adds.
In fact, the only way to effectively cross the language barrier, Mr. Maloney says, is for managers to set aside existing work time for language training activities. “Employers have to invest in HACCP training to make sure it happens,” he says. “I would suggest this is no different. HACCP is a requirement. Learning Spanish or English is not a requirement. But the same emphasis is required by the employer if the employer really wants the language barrier to be bridged.”
The benefits that come from language training in terms of workplace safety and productivity, however, will more than offset the investments in language training, Mr. Maloney says.
Indeed, bilingual employees are often better able to advance within their companies, particularly if they demonstrate effective employee-management capabilities.
Mr. Maloney adds that feeders with Hispanic workers need to have bilingual employees who can effectively communicate workplace expectations to them, including specific information about how, where, when and by whom specific tasks should be done. “An employee needs to know what outstanding performance looks like before they can achieve it,” he says, adding that when expectations are clearly communicated in Spanish, managers can better hold their Hispanic employees accountable for their workplace performance.
Dr. Fernandez also stresses the importance of language and finding someone on the staff to act as an interpreter as the first step toward good communication. He also encourages managers to use examples and pictures, explain the meanings of key words, repeat major points several times and finish with a summary. Ask appropriate questions of the audience to verify they understand directions.
Standard operating procedures should also be presented to employees in written form, both in English and Spanish. However, because literacy levels vary greatly, one should never assume that every Hispanic employee fully understands them. This, again, puts the onus on managers to orally walk their Hispanic employees through all written company guidelines to ensure that they are fully understood.
Effective bilingual communication, of course, not only improves Hispanic employee safety and productivity, but it also helps employers to build positive relationships with their Hispanic employees on a personal level. This, in turn, can often translate into improved employee loyalty and stability.
Mr. Maloney recommends that employers establish an awards program to keep their employees interested in improving their workplace performance, including their proficiency in English and/or Spanish. Informal rewards can encompass everything from free lunches or gifts of phone cards to help employees stay in touch with distant or greatly missed relatives to monthly drawings and certificates acknowledging outstanding performance.
Moreover, Mr. Maloney says employers need to understand that the fundamental needs of Hispanic employees, particularly recent immigrants, are substantially different from those of local employees. Hispanic workers, for example, often need help finding transportation, housing and preferred foods, as well as money-transfer services and recreational opportunities.
Employers, however, can ease their Hispanic employees’ transition into their workplace environments by helping them locate the services needed in their communities. Some employers also find it useful to recognize the importance of international holidays, including Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) and important holidays from other Spanish-speaking countries. Some employers, in fact, find it beneficial to establish an international wall in their office, on which they display the flags of countries represented by their workforce.
All of these efforts, Mr. Maloney says, can help Hispanic employees find more acceptance and integration within their communities, while improving their workplace performance.