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issue: November 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

North of the Border

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Editorial from Diane Ritchey, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

Each day, hundreds of people of Hispanic origin come to the U.S., escaping poor unemployment conditions in Mexico. They are virtually without legal protection, and many are exploited by employers and are given the "meanest" jobs that are available. Treating them properly may be the key to the U.S.'s future workforce.

Diane Ritchey, Editor

That's from a recent report titled How to Empower your Hispanic Workers, by Woodruff Imberman and Mariah Deforest of Imberman and Deforest, Inc. (Evanston, IL, U.S.). According to the report, all appliance companies should be aware of this growing workforce, especially, the report states, "if they want to have high productivity, low per-unit labor costs, and keep the jobs here [in the U.S.], rather than in the Zheijang and Guangdong provinces of Mainland China."

"Treating them properly means understanding their cultural heritage and historic mores," says Dr. Imberman, one of the report's authors, "and treating them in what they consider the proper fashion. Thus, they can be motivated to be excellent, hard-working employees. The Hispanics may not be educated, but they are certainly not dumb, nor are they ignorant of many ways to improve operations in both the manufacturing and service industries in which they serve."

According to U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 2002, there were 37.4 million Hispanics in the U.S. - 13.3 percent of the total U.S. population. The great majority is in metropolitan areas, especially inner cities. Approximately 24 percent of employees in American manufacturing are Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 1984. In some plants, that number is more than 90 percent, particularly in California and the New York City area.

Dr. Imberman and his colleague say that the appliance industry will shed 19,000 jobs this decade due to imports and higher productivity. The total workforce will drop to 97,000 in 2010, down from 116,000 in 2000. But because of traditional appliance industry turnover (15 percent annually), many new job openings will occur and many will be filled by immigrants, mainly Hispanic immigrants. This will increase the national average of Hispanic employment in appliance production to 10.5 percent in 2010, up from 8.7 percent in 2000. And that, they say, is all the more reason to understand them and to treat them properly.

"Dealing successfully with Hispanic newcomers means more than just using a bi-lingual foreman as a plant floor interpreter," Dr. Imberman suggests. "Motivating Hispanics means understanding their cultural traditions and honoring them in workplace practices."

For example, the report cites a case study about how a new manager from the Upper South was hired for a plant in Northern Ohio producing kitchen appliances. The facility had a large contingent of Mexican workers and a poor record of productivity and quality. The new manager, says the report, decided to improve the situation by getting "closer" to the workforce, many of whom spoke Spanish. Asking his employees to call him by his first name, he toured the plant floor with a translator, looking for ways to help workers while correcting their errors. He felt he was establishing good relations by simultaneously pushing hard for better quality and productivity while reducing the visible economic and status gap between him and his workers. Despite his corrective tactics and casual approach in dress and conduct, the report states, plant performance continued downhill.

The report suggests that this particular manager failed because he did not understand the mindset of his Hispanic workers. He apparently was unaware that managing employees with Hispanic backgrounds, cultures, and psychologies is different than managing an Anglo workforce. He did not know that Hispanics expect the "boss" stereotype to be reflected in appearance, i.e., the higher the status or importance of the job, the more formal the attireƉhe was expected to be proper, aloof, reserved, and very formal.

Thus, the report proposes that to gain the best efforts of a Hispanic workforce, plant managers must abandon the notion that Hispanics are like other workers, except that they speak Spanish. "Hispanics, especially Mexicans, are raised with emphasis on knowing one's place, hard work, and self-abnegation," the report states. "People are identified by class and roles, and Hispanics expect them to act in accordance with those roles. A plant manager wearing casual clothes is regarded as 'lacking in respect.'"

In addition, the report suggests that the impact of training Hispanic employees can be greatly increased by emphasizing its ceremonial aspects. Therefore, management should make special efforts to invite Hispanic employees to job training classes and require attendance for them to graduate.

Overall the report concludes, "For appliance executives and plant managers who make these efforts to understand Hispanic culture and outlook, who try to improve communications and institute special training procedures, the payoff can be very great: higher morale and productivity, less waste and spoilage, lower labor costs, and greater profitability."

The reality is that because of their sheer numbers, the percentage of Hispanics in the overall U.S. workforce is growing faster than any other group, and Hispanic immigrants most likely will have a profound effect on American society in general. That fact cannot be ignored. However, I disagree that this growing segment of workers requires special treatment. In my career with Appliance magazine, I've traveled to numerous appliance factories - new and old, large and small, with plant management experiences ranging from 1 year to 30 years - and I have yet to find a situation where each factory associate, regardless of their culture or ethnic background, was not treated with dignity and respect, and truly valued as an important part of that organization. I've also never encountered a situation where all factory associates weren't required to attend some type of job training class as part of their employment.

So how will giving Hispanics special treatment "improve productivity, cut labor costs, and maintain profit margins," as the report suggests? Perhaps some education involving use of the English language would benefit all parties, but overall, shouldn't Hispanics (and all workers for that matter) be treated with common courtesy and respect, something that seems to be standard operating procedure today and will be tomorrow?


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