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Cultivating ethnic talent

Stephanie Armour (USA TODAY) -- Corina Alvarez is the face of the new American workforce.

She's young, she's Hispanic and she's very much in demand. Consider what happened when the 31-year-old Cuban American went looking for a job. She wasn't too impressed by traditional job boards. But as soon as she posted her résumé on an online Hispanic job board, calls and contacts from companies came tumbling in.

"It was so exciting. I had zillions of calls from recruiters and companies," says Alvarez, now the public relations manager at a Miami-based Internet firm. "Companies are realizing that the more familiar they become with Hispanic culture and language, the more opportunities there will be for them. It's smart business sense."

It's a message more employers are heeding. As Hispanics continue to make up an ever-growing share of the American workforce, Corporate America is responding with a simple message: Bienvenidos, or welcome. Businesses including PepsiCo, Chevron, Coors Brewing and PricewaterhouseCoopers are stepping up recruitment and retention efforts. They're hiring interpreters, translating employee handbooks into Spanish and launching mentoring programs.

An unprecedented demographic shift is behind the emphasis.

The number of Hispanics in the country has surged nearly 60% since 1990 -- to 35.3 million -- putting the population at a virtual tie with African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group, according to recently released Census data. The increase is about 3 million more than had been projected. Meanwhile, the number of non-Hispanic whites increased by 5.3%.

As Hispanic workers make up an increasing number of clients, customers and potential hires, employers are reaching out to this demographic group as a matter of business survival.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has fostered growing economic ties with Mexico, with a two-way exchange of goods worth about $250 billion annually. That has accelerated the desire by American-based companies to hire Spanish-speaking workers, and the need could increase if a free-trade zone is expanded throughout the Americas.

"A third of the Latinos are under 18, so this is going to be the future of the workforce in the U.S. This is a population we need to invest in, pay attention to," says Sonia Perez, a deputy vice president at the National Council of La Raza. "The Latino population will help lead the economy going forward. Companies are starting to pay attention, which is good."

Challenges Come With Shift

But the shift is also bringing challenges. More workers are claiming they've been discriminated against by being forced to speak only English on the job, federal officials say, and many of those allegations come from Hispanic employees. Many Hispanic employees lack health benefits or retirement pensions.

But some hope employers' efforts to reach this demographic group will create more opportunity. For example:

* Kmart recruits at colleges and universities that have large numbers of Hispanic students. The company also advertises in Hispanic publications and uses online Hispanic job boards. It also has translated employment and benefit information into Spanish.

* The University of North Carolina Health Care System at Chapel Hill, N.C., has brought in Spanish interpreters at its new-employee orientations and printed part of its job application information in Spanish. It also has had English classes for Hispanic workers.

"Some of the staff was frustrated at their ability to communicate," says Laura Mathew, director of the health system's Spanish interpretive program. "We're doing the best we can with interpreters and flyers, but it's a process. It's an awareness of different cultures that has to occur, too."

The efforts go both ways: Spanish-language courses are offered for English-speaking employees.

* PricewaterhouseCoopers is recruiting Hispanic employees at college campuses in Texas and other areas where there is a large Hispanic student population.

The company has also set up employee support and socialization groups where Hispanic managers act as leaders to Hispanic employees, and the company provides scholarships for Hispanic accounting students.

* Chevron sponsors a Hispanic employee network, dubbed Somos, which means "we are" in Spanish.

* The Gap, based in San Francisco, works with La Raza and the National Society of Hispanic MBAs and recruits on campuses with heavy Hispanic populations.

Such efforts are coming in large part because of business leaders' growing realization that winning the Hispanic market is vital. Hispanics' purchasing power is estimated to be more than $350 billion annually, according to La Raza. Hispanic-owned businesses have been driving much of the small-business growth in the country. And Hispanics are increasingly moving into the middle class, buying homes, entering college and earning advanced degrees.

That's why companies that sell to the Hispanic market, such as Pepsi, also view reaching out to potential hires as a way to grow their customer base. Pepsi works with national Hispanic organizations to help with recruiting and is planning a leadership forum for some Hispanic executives. The program will give the executives access to the CEO and other company leaders.

"It would be a large mistake for us to not appeal to this broad segment of talent," says Maurice Cox, vice president for corporate development and diversity at Pepsi in Purchase, N.Y.

"The pool of white males is continuing to shrink, and the pool of Latinos is growing. There is a massive shift taking place demographically, and if we don't begin thinking about it now, we'll find ourselves at a significant disadvantage."

Growing Their Own

Many companies are trying to cultivate their own talent. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers has sent Hispanic professionals into high schools to talk about accounting and financial careers.

Companies also are aligning themselves with professional organizations in an effort to move Hispanics into jobs in which they are under-represented.

Consider the recent attention given to the American Association of Hispanic Certified Public Accountants.

"The sponsorship money for our organization has increased over the last year because of the interest Corporate America is paying to Hispanic professional associations," says Manuel "Manny" Espinoza in Houston, president of the association and a partner in the financial advisory services group at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"The Census has brought it to the forefront. Companies have to pay attention now," Espinoza says.

The national demographic shift also means more Hispanics are feeling shut out of promotions, raises and jobs. Many professions and industries remain seemingly out of reach.

A survey of 250 Silicon Valley firms employing 142,000 employees found just 8% of the workers were Hispanic, according to the Coalition for Fair Employment in Silicon Valley.

In 1999, Hispanic women had a median income of $11,314, according to La Raza. Non-Hispanic white women had a median income of $30,594.

Allegations of national-origin discrimination based on companies' implementation of English-only rules have jumped from 77 cases filed in fiscal year 1996 to 400 last year, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Many involve employers who barred Hispanic workers from speaking Spanish.

"As workplaces continue to diversify, we will probably see a rise in these concerns," EEOC Chairwoman Ida Castro says.

"As workers begin to understand each other and develop a working relationship that is positive, we will see the growing pains of an expanding and diversified society. What we need to be concerned about is the increasing intolerance we're seeing in the most egregious forms."

Bridging Cultural Gaps

The rise in litigation means more work for diversity trainers and consultants, who say they're already in strong demand. But it can be a challenging task to bridge the cultural gaps, in large part because Hispanic employees have so many different countries of origin. There is no one-size-fits-all program.

Trula LaCalle, a consultant based in Sebastopol, Calif., who specializes in cross-cultural issues, says she must tailor classes based on Hispanic employees' backgrounds.

Some firms may have Hispanic employees primarily from rural areas in Mexico where residents may have scant formal education. But that's just part of the picture.

"Nicaraguans are war-torn people and their families have been torn apart, and that's in their psyche," LaCalle says. "Those from Chile are almost European in flavor. What fits for one may not fit for all. In one class I did, I had one guy with a (doctorate) and another who couldn't write his own name." Her message? "White Caucasians are the growing minority, and companies need to adapt."

Many already are, and it's a change some Hispanic employees say they've noticed. Eric Smallwood, 39, a vice president and partner at Human Capital Consultants, a consulting firm in Miramar, Fla., was born in Mexico and reared there as well as in Brazil and the USA. Many employers, he says, are eager to interview and hire Hispanic workers like him.

"There's a premium on people who are fluent, on recruiting people who are bilingual," Smallwood says.

"I consider myself to be Latino, but I went through the U.S. school system, so I can think American. I can almost switch between the two. We're going to see more and more people who have that ability, and those are the ones large companies want."

(c) 2001 USA TODAY

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