July 20, 2007
Bilingual workers have an edge
The Greenville (S.C.) News
Gannett News Service, George Gardner/The Greenville (S.C) News
Susan Mattingly grew up speaking and writing in English and Spanish because her Cuban-born mother wanted to keep the family's Latino heritage alive.
Now, at 40, Mattingly finds her fluency in a second language in demand as a telephone agent for Arise Virtual Solutions, a call center that provides customer service for about 40 companies across the country.
Working from her Greenville, S.C., home, Mattingly fields calls from Puerto Rico, Hawaii and abroad for clients of an insurance company.
"I would say daily to weekly I use my [Spanish language] skills," Mattingly said. "It seems a great gift that I speak Spanish."
Mary Bartlett, talent manager for Arise, said about a third of the independent contractors who work for the company are bilingual, many of them immigrants or first-generation Americans who grew up speaking the language of their parents' homelands.
"By far the biggest demand we have is for Spanish. I don't see this trend slowing down," Bartlett said. "They want someone who can really connect with the customer."
Mattingly is among an estimated 11 percent of Americans who speak English and a second language fluently, according to the Census Bureau.
Sights set on translators
Most workers in the United States don't need to speak or write a second language. But recruiters say some telemarketing, banking, engineering and financial-service companies are looking for workers and managers with bilingual skills because of the growing immigrant population in the United States or because they are doing more business in foreign countries.
Dayna Romanick, a national recruiter for Manpower Professional, said the Fortune 100 companies she deals with are asking more frequently for managers who speak Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and other languages.
And when it is not mandatory for some jobs, being bilingual is icing on the cake. When it's important enough, companies will hire people who are not bilingual then send them to intensive language schools, Romanick said.
While speaking a second language is important to many businesses, the ability to also read and write in another language can be equally important, especially when companies or institutions are dealing with complex legal documents or patents.
Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association, said demand for skilled people who can read and write in a foreign language is up. He attributes that to increased international trade and a Clinton administration executive order that requires federally funded institutions and agencies to provide bilingual services to clients with limited English skills.
Professional translators and interpreters generally take not only college-level language classes but also attend professional language schools that require their students to live in the countries whose languages they want to become proficient in, he said.
"It takes a long time and a lot of effort to master a language," Hendzel said.
An Arizona native, Hendzel is fluent in Russian thanks to a federal government program during the Sputnik years when the United States played catch-up in space technology and science with the Soviet Union. In addition to putting money into science programs, the U.S. government put money into intensive language programs to teach Russian to young Americans. Hendzel attended Georgetown University's Russian language program then spent a year in St. Petersburg, Russia. His 6-year-old daughter is already bilingual, speaking English and Russian.
But she may end up trilingual. She's learning Chinese and seems to enjoy the challenge, he said.
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