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Successfully managing a bilingual maintenance shop.


It is becoming tougher and tougher for fleet shops across the country to find good technicians these days, and it is a problem with some teeth. A lack of skilled workers can cause a shop’s productivity to bog down and create a potentially unsafe environment, damaging morale and eating away at profits.

Yet this challenge is turning into opportunities for skilled non-English speaking technicians—some of whom are coming from south of the border to fill the void. Now, it is up to managers to take advantage of this growing labor force by simply employing some patience, which can end up paying some serious dividends for their fleets.

The largest and fastest growing minority group in the country, Hispanics comprise about 13 percent of the population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. According to last year’s BLS Household Data Annual Averages, Hispanics make up 16.8 percent of all automotive service technicians, 14.1 percent of bus/truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists and 13.5 percent of heavy vehicle/mobile equipment service technicians; numbers that are growing by the day.

However, census numbers indicated that nearly a third of Hispanics between ages 18-64, including new immigrants, reported speaking English “not well” or “not at all.” Apply those figures to the number of Hispanics employed as technicians and you have tens of thousands of workers who are linguistically isolated. And a tech who cannot communicate with co-workers or managers is likely going to be more of a liability for a shop than an asset.

PRACTICE PATIENCE

Technology & Maintenance Council vice-president Darry Stuart, president of DWS Fleet Management, has dealt with bilingual issues in fleet shops since the early 1980s, when many new hires in the industry were immigrants from Southeast Asia. These days, as he travels around the country he hears Spanish spoken in shops across the southern part of the nation, as well as larger northern cities. Many of these workers are immigrants from “south of the border” trying to get a start in the country, and have impressed him with their diligence and determination to succeed.

“We’re not attracting many people in this business, so consequently we’re trying to import them, to some degree,” he says. “The Mexican people are incredible with their work ethic, and they are highly mechanically skilled.”

Language and cultural barriers are also part of the new mix in these shops, however. Stuart attended two TMC sessions in Mexico City and came away with a much greater understanding of Latino culture.

“When you go into the other world and you can’t speak (the language), you’ve got to quickly sort some things out, so that was sort of a training exercise for me, for those people that are here, to know what they go through,” he says. “One thing I found is the culture of those people is much harder and moredirect than we are—there’s a lack of finesse, and that may create some issues here as we go forward with our culture.”

Besides understanding and accepting cultural differences, Stuart says managers must make sure everyone gets the same training, and use patience when dealing with non-English speakers, especially those who emigrated from other countries.

“The style of how they are trained is much different than here, so they are having some opportunities struggling to fix it like when they were south of the border,” he says. “You’ve got to have patience and monitor them so you know what they’re doing. They have great mechanical skills with little sophistication. In their (former) world… they were more creative and made things happen, but here, although we make things happen, it’s in a different way and a different method, and if you’re not careful they’ll want to impose the lack of sophistication that they were not trained.”

HANDS-ON

Allowing technicians to maintain vehicles any which way is not conducive to a productive shop, so Stuart says managers should accentuate hands-on training and non-verbal communication.

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