Lawrence mA

Embracing The Bilingual Workforce To Evolve Your Workplace

Jessica Andora Lawrence Community WorksThis month, we’ve been talking about workforce development and innovative ways to bridge the skills and labor gap that many businesses are facing. In fact, one local manufacturing company recently told participants at a listening session at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that they were experiencing such a stark skills gap in meeting their growing business demands, they sought out a partnership with a nearby prison to train and recruit employees. We are fortunate to have an expert on this topic in our own backyard – the Executive Director of Lawrence Community Works, a nonprofit community development corporation dedicated to the grassroots revitalization of the city of Lawrence and one of our Venture Fund winners. Jessica was part of a team of community organizers that spearheaded the organization’s rebirth in 1999, helping it grow to a $3 million organization with over 5,000 resident and stakeholder members, over $120 million invested in affordable housing, family asset building, and community organizing and development, and numerous awards for its work. We’re excited to share her expertise about evolving the workplace and growing your business by embracing the bilingual workforce.

In today’s tight labor market, many employers are struggling to find talent and take advantage of opportunities to grow.  But three progressive employers in the rising city of Lawrence – GemLine (promotional products), Cardinal Shoe (ballet shoes) and 99 Degrees Custom (advanced performance activewear) – are thriving in this changing world. These are not manufacturers of the past. Like many US makers, these companies compete through technology, mechanical innovation, and organizational culture. One of their secrets? Embrace the local workforce – even if that workforce doesn’t speak English.

Lawrence is a former mill city that has become the most heavily Latino city in New England.  These three companies recognized early that the immigrant workforce was bringing a strong work ethic and some critical skills to the table, if they could overcome the language barrier.  Backed by a robust existing culture of employee training and investment, they embraced a bilingual approach to operations. The result? Low turnover, high productivity, little difficulty recruiting, and ability to focus on competitiveness, innovation, and growth.

99 Degrees CEO and founder Brenna Nan Schneider has these tips to offer manufacturers contemplating a competitive shift to bilinguality: 

  • Hire bilingual management, including an HR manager, coordinator or assistant who can translate and communicate with frontline workers
  • Ensure that training information, your orientation, onboarding materials, and handbook are translated
  • Use apps and online translation tools when communicating across languages
  • Create visual aids to help communicate standard operating procedures, expectations, and routine tasks
  • Post information, including company values, in all languages so everyone feels welcome
  • Prepare to manage cultural differences and misunderstandings so they can be resolved, people feel understood, and teams are built across languages.

Catalyzed by investment from the United Way Venture Fund with support from Aetna, local nonprofit and public sector partners are working with these employers to extract lessons and strategies that can benefit other employers – and workers – across the region.  It’s a “demand-side” approach that can greatly amplify the effect of “supply-side” training interventions by shifting practice at employers themselves – impacting hundreds of current and future job opportunities. Now that’s economic development!

Venture Fund Partners: Lawrence CommunityWorks, Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board, Northeast Advanced Manufacturing Consortium, Marathon Manufacturing, Lawrence Partnership, Greater Lawrence Technical School.