At Teevan Restoration's Christmas party last December, while Benjamin Ladomirak orally recognized his employees for their hard work, Dr. Pilar De Olave stood nearby and translated his words into Spanish. De Olave, the company's interpreter, attends team meetings, helped Teevan translate its job descriptions into Spanish, and is currently working on translating the employee manual. Also at the party was Ximena Ruiz, who teaches English twice a week to Teevan employees.
That's the kind of commitment that Ladomirak and his wife and company co-owner Jesse Ladomirak have made to improve the lives and the livelihoods of their Spanish-speaking employees.
With a tight labor market and an influx of non-native workers, this kind of proactive management is good business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, “one in seven labor force participants in the United States are immigrants,” and based on race and ethnicity, “Hispanics account for 13% of the American labor force.”
In mid-2005, Jesse says, “We had a critical mass of ESL [English as Second Language] people”: 10 of Teevan's 16 employees spoke Spanish as a first language. “We had these great guys working for us, and we couldn't put them in charge of jobs because they couldn't speak to clients. We want to nurture the people we have, and this is the best way to do that.”
English classes, which often focus on Teevan-specific construction language and forms, are held at the office in San Francisco, and are open to all employees and their spouses. Although no family members have taken advantage of the classes, two employees in particular “are really throwing themselves into these classes and getting what they can out of it. The teacher sees a big difference,” says Jesse, who anticipates that by July these employees will become foremen and be responsible for communicating with clients. She's noticed that since classes began, all the student employees are speaking more fluently and with more confidence.
While teaching English is a “smart business practice,” says Roger Herman, an employee retention specialist and author of Keeping Good People, he reminds owners that learning should be a two-way street. “Non-Hispanic employees, particularly management, need to understand the language and the culture of their employees. If you find out where they're coming from and what's important to them, you'll be able to attract them, lead them, and hold onto them longer.” He also strongly suggests that along with language training, owners should “train [immigrant] employees in the fundamentals of supervision. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for failure.”
The Ladomiraks, who both took Spanish in college, have some ability to communicate in their employees' language and have been considering the English teacher's proposal to teach Spanish to non-Spanish-speaking managers. Leadership training is on the books for next year. Jesse says, “We hope we're helping them advance their career and life goals.”