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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.

“If you show them something, they can do it,” he says. “Their skills are easier to learn by show and tell instead of books.”

Otherwise, letting poor communication rule the shop will only hurt the fleet’s bottom line, and possibly its employees. Stuart says it is up to the manager to get everyone working efficiently.

“The average weekly employee, you could have a week and a half’s worth of time to get a week of work, so your productivity would be less than desirable and would cost you money,” he says. “Safety can also be a factor—that’s where the energy has to be applied. The manager should spend 80 percent of his time on the shop floor. It will hurt the bottom line, but some of that may be offset in their levels of productivity.”

GOOD AS GOLD

In the end, the key to communication lies with the manager. Stuart says shops with non-English speaking technicians should ideally have a bilingual manager, though it is easier said than done and won’t be cheap.

“Finding a manager is difficult,” he says. “Finding one that is bilingual is difficult. Finding one that has mechanical experience, people skills and the adrenaline rush to do that job is difficult. We’re going to have to pay a premium for people who are bilingual. We have to crank up our supervision and understand that the value of a sharp, mechanically inclined, people-managing bilingual supervisor is going to be worth more in the future than we want to accept. We have to spend a tremendous amount of energy finding bilingual supervisors and train them on the skills of managing people, (having) patience.”

For managers who can only speak English, learning Spanish is a good idea but may not be as practical, Stuart says.

“If the supervisor has the patience… usually there are more Spanish-speaking people than are bilingual than English-speakers that know Spanish,” he says. “If you can’t speak Spanish in the next 20 years, you are going to be handcuffed.”

Jose Rodriguez, bilingual corporate maintenance trainer for the Florida-based Gator Leasing, Inc., works with nine shops throughout Florida, including several in the Miami area with around 70 percent non-English-speaking technicians.

“(Being bilingual) is very important because of the language barrier—if you can’t speak Spanish when you’re down in that area, it’s very hard to communicate with the guys that are working,” he says.

For managers who are not bilingual, hands-on demonstrations and non-verbal communication are key in getting through language barriers, Rodriguez says.

“When you’re working on a vehicle, that’s a universal language,” he says. “Once you look at a technician who’s working on a truck, just by looking at the way he’s working, you know if he knows (what he’s doing) or if he would be a safety issue. You can throw books at them and they could probably understand half of it, but if you go hands-on, you’re 100 percent sure that they got it, especially when you show them what they need to do and then you let them do it.”

Training is the key, though, and Rodriguez says having a bilingual trainer is much better able to communicate and help improve a shop’s productivity and bottom line.

“If you have bilingual (workers) you need to have somebody who is able to train in either English or Spanish so you can get the point across, otherwise it’s very hard to get the information through,” he says.

MAKING PROGRESS

John Hammel, Vice-president of Gator Leasing, Inc. says his company has been able to overcome the challenges of a bilingual workplace with training, thanks to people like Rodriguez. He says the company once hired “quite a few” workers who spoke no English who came over from Cuba in the 80s, and tried to help them to learn English, to mixed results.

“We worked really hard with them to try and bring them up to speed and offered them some classes at the local high school,” he says. “Some guys did OK with it, others just couldn’t get it.”

Not giving up, the company now has all shop forms in Spanish as well as English, to improve communication between the drivers, technicians, shop supervisors and the service manager.

“Most of our people are truly bilingual and they don’t have that much of a problem with it—some actually prefer to use the Spanish forms because they are more familiar with it, but we encourage them to use the English ones so they can practice and get better,” he says. “It’s a big success story, because the guys are very talented, very smart and bright, want to learn, but they are language-challenged, so we’ve got to put it on their plate.”

The amount of bilingual information the shop receives from dealers has increased dramatically in recent years, Hammel says, also helping the situation.

“Quite a few of the manufacturers recognize that in certain parts of the country, the workforce is of Latino origin and consequently can be language-challenged, so they’ve produced a lot of their stuff in Spanish. Some of the OEMs have produced a lot of their things in Spanish for us, and that helps a lot, but we’re pushing them to try to get all of their stuff (in Spanish) and the computer side of it is where we see a real issue, because just about everything is going Internet-based now for all the manuals, technical bulletins, just about everything you need to work on a truck.”

HELPING HAND

Stuart says recent increases in bilingual packaging—from parts to training manuals—all helps.

“For the most part everybody now has a dual version of the basic and preliminary training stuff,” he says. “Certainly if you look at J. J. Keller’s catalog, they have the Spanish version. At TMC, we took that on six or eight years ago, bilingual training (manuals). The stuff is becoming more and more available, (but) that’s a challenge in itself, because not every English word is easily translated to Spanish. We are preparing for the future.”

Don Dew, executive director of special products at Automotive Service Excellence, says their goal is to better serve the emerging Spanish-speaking population by creating bilingual maintenance tests. He says the number of linguistically isolated technicians working in the U.S. is around 120,000.

“With immigration, you’ve got adults coming into this country who don’t speak English well enough, and the numbers and percentages got large enough where we couldn’t ignore it any more,” he says. “It’s a bridge to help these guys that are trying to take care of their families today.”

Dew says it is in the best interests of fleet managers to do what they can to ensure smooth communication for all their technicians, and providing avenues to learn English is always a good idea.

“Anything they can do to enable their employees to improve their English, the better off everyone will be,” he says. “Many shops are starving for quality technicians, and if they find one who doesn’t speak English, they’ll find ways to work around that—having someone who is bilingual who can work with them. But don’t allow that guy to continue to stay isolated—the number one thing is to do what you can to help the individuals develop their English skills, and there are some resources available.”

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