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Bosses respect bilingual workers

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


ODESSA -- Bilingualism has become dramatically more valuable to John Mistal as he hires workers for his drywall, metal-framing and stucco-distribution company.

"Sometimes we deliver things to job sites, and no one speaks English, and we can't figure out where things should go," said Mistal, managing partner of American Building Materials.

Luckily, some of his 29 employees are bilingual.

"There have been times when customers have come in, and I have to have one of our (bilingual) employees translate for me, just to make the transaction."

With the area's influx of Spanish-speaking people, Mistal and other manufacturers see language education as a potential way to overcome the biggest problem they face today: getting good workers.

"If there's a way that someone can help train these people to speak English, that's a lot of work force that we can tap into," said Mistal, whose company has offices in Odessa, San Antonio and Lakeland and is planning to expand to Citrus County. "They are hard workers who just have trouble communicating."

The recent census revealed that Pasco, like much of the rest of Florida and the nation, has seen a dramatic increase in Hispanics. The county's Hispanic population jumped 111 percent to 19,603 in 2000. Roughly 17 percent of the state's work force is Hispanic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pasco's Economic Development Council recently gathered a group of local manufacturers to discuss their needs -- and the demand for English as a Second Language (ESOL) programs was as severe as the need for courses that teach production workers leadership and problem-solving skills. Manufacturers said they would even help pay for the training.

The EDC is trying to put together a program, in cooperation with area community colleges.

Mike Sullivan says bridging the language gap could help him grow Cadence Manufacturing Inc., the carrying case manufacturer he manages in Odessa. As he considers entering new markets and creating new product lines, he hopes to grow his staff by at least 15 percent.

"It's kind of a chicken-and-an-egg thing," said Sullivan, general manager of the company's Odessa office, which has about 21 employees. "We don't seek those (Spanish-speaking) workers because we don't have a vehicle to work with them. I welcome anybody that wants to work and do a good job."

A language education program is "an opportunity to grow your work force and show that you're as serious about working with them as they are about working with you," he said. "Anybody you talk to that's running a business will say that the No. 1 problem is reliable help, and if you're not willing to invest in them, why should they be reliable for you?"

Patsy Rose, co-owner of Rose Drywall of Lutz, says about 70 percent of her workers speak Spanish. She has a bilingual foreman who translates for subcontractors who don't speak English.

"My husband knows 'Manana, manana' means, 'Tomorrow things will get done,' " she said. "And he knows how to say screws and nails."

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