ACHRNEWS

Is It Time To Stress Bilingual Skills?

October 22, 2002
The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors (PHCC) of Georgia began offering classes titled “Basic Spanish for the Plumbing Professional.” The eight-hour course is designed to help students develop effective and “real-life” communication skills in Latin American, South American, and Mexican dialectal Spanish. Students explore how to speak, understand, and use Spanish, with additional emphasis on listening comprehension.

Is a program like this one necessary for HVACR contractors, especially in regions that are home to a large segment of the population that speaks another language? Will this be a viable way for contractors to increase market share? The News put the following questions to its Contractor Consultants:

  • Do you think it is important today to have employees with bilingual skills?

  • Would you pay to have your employees trained in basic Spanish (or another language which is common to your community)?

  • Would you view this as an opportunity to increase market share?

    A POSITIVE SPIN

    Arthur Pickett of Royal Air Systems Inc. (North Reading, MA) likes the idea of a language course, although he is not sure a “middle-aged tech can master Spanish in eight hours.” He said there is good reason for having bilingual skills.

    “We are located in a Hispanic-populated city and the average income is low,” Pickett said. “Most are tenants, not owners, and we get few service calls for no heat in the dead of winter.

    “What generally happens is the local gas company still tries to provide service, and when they get overbooked, they refer them to us because we offer 24/7 service. These have always been poor leads, and for several years we stumbled through trying to help.” The language barrier proved to be a big problem, he maintained.

    “The last couple of years we have had Hispanic service techs, so when dispatch gets a call and there is a communication problem, they try to get a phone number and then call the tech and have them call the potential customer,” he said. “This has made life easier for the service department.”

    Larry Taylor of Air Rite Air Conditioning Co. (Fort Worth, TX) outlined some steps his company has taken to create a bilingual environment. “We have taken out an ad in the Spanish Yellow Pages that will come out in the December-January timeframe,” he said. “We also have a dispatcher/ call taker who speaks Spanish and a couple of techs that can speak some or understand some.

    “We have aligned with an ex-school teacher, who has a Masters in Spanish, that teaches Spanish to business people. He doesn’t try to do all the things you would get in a classroom setting but rather teaches you how to understand and conduct business in Spanish. We intend to start that class in October or November, depending on his schedule. He will be doing it after hours in the evenings for anyone at Air Rite who wants to attend.

    “From our past experiences, once the Spanish community finds out you can converse with them, they are really loyal and will refer everyone they come in contact with to you.”

    Scott Getzschman of Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal/Service Experts (Fremont, NE) likes the idea of sending employees to bilingual training. “I think as our demographics change — and they are — a bilingual technician will be very helpful,” he said. “We have been able to manage thus far, but it can be very difficult. We usually end up communicating with the oldest child translating back to the parents. It is a reality we are all going to have to deal with.

    “The idea of a technician or salesmen being trained is a great idea and one we will be investigating.”

    Dave Dombrowski of Metro Services/ARS-ServiceMaster (Raleigh, NC) believes having a bilingual staff is vital to a company’s success. “Our team has recognized the importance of diversity for many years, and minorities represent a significant and important part of our workforce,” he added. “We all agree that good communications are critical to the success of any organization.

    “Bilingual coworkers are extremely valuable to our group and are rewarded for this additional skill.”

    Dombrowski points out that cultural as well as language differences can hinder communication. “We have hired trainers to instruct my management team in the sociological difference among cultures,” he said.

    “As an example (and one that we found quite surprising), a traditional ‘American’ worker who does not look you in the eyes when speaking may be viewed as untrustworthy. However, in some cultures, averting direct eye contact is a sign of respect. This is not a short-term process that can be cured with one class, but a mindset that recognizes the value of each person.”

    Aaron York of Aaron York’s Quality A/C (Indianapolis, IN) feels that the HVACR trade should not let this opportunity pass it by. “Basic Spanish is, in my opinion, something our industry must address,” he said. “The Latino populace is growing rapidly, especially in metropolitan areas. They not only offer a great potential for business but also are a great source of talent for the shortage of technicians.

    “IVT TECH, our state vo-tech college, is teaching an ‘English as a Second Language’ course to assist the Hispanic community. If the HVACR industry misses this opportunity, we are most unwise, in my opinion. And yes, we would be happy to help our people learn Spanish.”

    Todd Morgan of Comprehensive Energy Services Inc. (Altamonte Springs, FL) is in an area where ethnic diversity is growing. He sees opportunities. “Thirty percent of our construction trades workers in central Florida are Hispanic,” he said. “It is very beneficial for our employees to have bilingual skills.

    “We recently had a receptionist who was Hispanic and bilingual. She was able to communicate in Spanish with Hispanic applicants who were very weak in English skills. I think this gave us an advantage over our competitors in recruiting Hispanic-speaking employees.

    “Since many of our employees have weak English speaking skills, it is important that we team these people with bilingual employees. We have paid to have our employees trained in basic Spanish by attending a special seminar put on by our local Associated Builders and Contractors Association.”

    Ann Kahn of Kahn Mechanical (Dallas, TX) said that there is a difference between the needs of residential and commercial contractors. “For the residential contractor especially, it would be good business to have employees with bilingual skills. Tempo Mechanical in Dallas, for example, has a staff member who gives classes in Spanish for non-Spanish-speaking employees as well as classes in English for their Hispanic employees. This makes sense if you have a large market, or seek one, with people who speak another language.

    “As a commercial contractor, we encounter customers from all over the world. It would be difficult to communicate with each of them in his or her own language. We do the best we can and somehow seem to manage!”

    Roger Grochmal of Atlas Air/Climate Care (Mississauga, ON, Canada) is located near Toronto. “Most people here have a reasonable proficiency with English,” he said. “There is a very good network of ESL (English as a second language) programs that are made available to almost everyone at little or no cost.

    “The one exception is that we have a large, affluent Chinese community, many of whom have very little proficiency in English. This is an opportunity for us. There are very few trained mechanics with this language skill and it is a very difficult language to learn. We continue to look for someone to help us penetrate this market.”

    SOME DON’T SEE THE NEED — YET

    Russ Donnici of Mechanical Air Service Inc. (San Jose, CA) hasn’t seen a great need for bilingual training. “The short answer for the question would be that we haven’t found the need to focus on having a bilingual person in service or on a installation crew. The more important criteria are the desire to work and the customer service-type skills.”

    Tom Lawson of Advanced Air Conditioning & Heating Inc. (Bossier City, LA) said, “At the present time, a program like the one offered by PHCC Georgia is not needed in this area. If, however, we were located in a state that had a lot of citizens that spoke Spanish, like South Texas, I think it could be very beneficial.

    “I am always willing to pay for employee training no matter what type. I feel like it could definitely increase your market share.”

    Jeff Somers of Monsen Engineering Co. (Fairfield, NJ) is in favor of bilingual training but doesn’t see a big need in the commercial market. “I think the course is a good idea for those contractors that primarily do residential work in areas that have a heavy population of Spanish-speaking people,” he said. “I don’t think it could help in gaining market share in the commercial business.

    “I do think it would help technicians to deal with building superintendents or security personal in commercial buildings and also help explain what they did to the system to Spanish-speaking people. Once again, it’s something that a technician could add to their very large toolkit they are carrying around.”

    But most of our consultants share the opinion of Mary Marble of the J.A. Marble Co. (Dearborn, MI). “I’d be interested if there was a language specific to my area and I wanted to target this market,” she said. “I would see this as an opportunity to have office staff and technicians have a basic understanding of this language and use of it. I think the program is a great idea!”

    Publication date: 10/28/2002