IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.– The second most common language in the United States, Spanish, is the primary language spoken at home by more than 35.5 million Americans aged 5 or older. Businesses all over the nation are looking for bilingual applicants to help turn these people into new customers. But how important is it in the workplace?
Being only minutes away from the U.S.- Mexican border, it would seem local businesses are favoring bilingual applicants in order to provide better service to a wider range of customers.
“It is very helpful because a lot of our customers come from across the border,” said Alfonso Ruiz, store manager of the Imperial Valley College bookstore. “But I would prefer someone who is hard-working and is great with customers.”
Ruiz said he doesn’t necessarily have hard and fast rules when it comes to finding a new employee. “I try to give everyone an opportunity,” Ruiz said. “I’ve hired people who have very little experience and people who speak German or French.”
Even though some managers do not require their employees to be bilingual, being able to speak multiple languages can help in the workplace.
“Whatever country you’re working in you need to be able to speak their language. Anything else is a plus,” said Jennifer
Donatt, branch manager for the Manpower office in El Centro. “The bilingual person is going to be easier to place, but it’s not a deciding factor. I focus on ‘soft skills’ like attitude or behavior.”
But what about jobs that require more physical labor and less customer interaction where many of the workers are primarily Spanish speakers?
“Spanish is mostly spoken because many of the workers aren’t primarily English speakers,” said Ricardo Zepeda, a former employee at the National Beef packing plant in Brawley. “It has nothing to do with customer service because our job doesn’t revolve around customers. It’s more of a comfort thing.”
Zepeda, who has been looking for employment for nearly five months, said even though he is bilingual he can’t get a job. Nevertheless, he remains positive that he will find something. “I don’t have much experience and I know that affects me negatively, but I’m sure I’ll find something sooner or later.”
It seems language is not so important on the border, at least for people who have worked or are working already. But coming out of school with almost no marketable experience, high school students are having an especially tough time finding employment after graduation.
“From personal experience, being able to speak Spanish in this town is a really big advantage. If you can speak Spanish, a lot of doors are going to open, especially when you’re dealing with people,” said Eduardo Leal, a student at Imperial High School. Leal is bilingual, however, he is also confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy.
“I’m not very high up on the list for new employees obviously,” Leal joked. “But I try to stay hopeful. I had a couple small summer jobs before, helping out at places like the Family Treehouse [day care] but it doesn’t transfer to the real world well enough to land me a job anywhere really.”
A study from the Department of Education in Florida found that bilingual workers make almost $7,000 more than monolingual people. But employers here in the Imperial Valley are not going out of their way to find bilingual workers.
“Here it’s not going to give you higher wages,” said Donatt. “I have a peer in Idaho and they have a very difficult time filling positions with Spanish-speaking people. We have a reverse problem; we need more people who speak English.”
With nearly 170,000 people in the Imperial Valley and only 63,000 jobs, being bilingual will give you an edge, but local businesses are still looking for employees who have proven they can work hard.