Despite a statewide unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, no economic downturn exists for professionals who are bilingual. A regional shortage of bilingual professionals has a bevy of companies clamoring to hire the few available.
Debbie Ruggles, director of paratransit services for the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority, has been looking for three months for a bilingual professional to work in the organization’s call center.
With an estimated population of 75,000, Tulsa County’s Latinos could benefit from the services provided by MTTA, Ruggles said, but some have trouble accessing those services because they can’t communicate with its customer service representatives.
MTTA employs 27 in its call centers, and, as of yet, none is bilingual. Ruggles said she intends to hire one bilingual CSR immediately and add more as budget allows, giving priority to bilingual applicants for any position.
“The other thing we’re trying to do with this (available customer service) position, in addition to having the person work on phone, is we hope to get someone who can do liaison work for us with the Spanish-speaking community,” Ruggles said.
She said she wants MTTA to have a presence at events in the Latino community and hopes to hire someone who can interpret for and communicate with non-English-speaking Tulsans.
Since the position’s duties include more than answering the phone and providing bus schedules and other information, it has been difficult to fill, she said.
She’s looking for someone who speaks both English and Spanish fluently, who has some experience in the workforce and is comfortable making decisions and speaking in front of people.
She said the process of finding the right candidate is “very frustrating.”
“We feel we are falling short,” she said. “There is an untapped market of people who could benefit from Tulsa Transit services, but we have not had a good mechanism in place to reach them.
“We hope this person can bridge the gap and get us into some venues to help build those relationships.”
Ruggles said MTTA has placed ads in Spanish-speaking newspapers, like Hispano de Tulsa, and sought the assistance of organizations like the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Margarita Vega-Trevino, editor at Hispano de Tulsa and one of TBJ’s 2009 40 Under 40, said the shortage of bilingual professionals has always been a problem in the city.
She said Tulsa’s Latino community is mostly comprised of new immigrants and first generation Americans.
“And mainly people that are coming from small communities in their countries of origin,” she said. “That usually means they come from farming communities or something like that where their level of education is not too high.”
For that reason, companies that seek both educated and bilingual professionals might have to search for a long time.
Vega-Trevino said she hires only professionals with four-year degrees. Because of the nature of her publication — Hispano de Tulsa went from Spanish-only to bilingual in January — she’s forced to hire employees who are adept at communicating in both English and Spanish. She said she had the same difficulty others do, going the route most go to find such professionals: networking, word of mouth and hiring employees from other companies.
Vega-Trevino’s husband, Francisco Trevino, bought Hispano de Tulsa in 1995 and is a founding member and the president of the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“I think a lot of companies sometimes join the Chamber thinking we’re miracle makers, and sometimes they get disappointed,” Trevino said. “But we tell them, ‘We can provide you the venue, but you really have to connect with our members and people that go to our events.’”
“We have a good labor source of Hispanics here in Tulsa, but the ones that are bilingual, the professionals, they have good jobs,” Trevino said. “So whenever a company, say U.S. Cellular or TCIM, tries to find bilingual staff, they basically just try to steal from each other.”
Still, one company stealing another company’s employees doesn’t solve the larger problem — increasing the number of bilingual professionals in the workforce.
Trevino suggested that there are bilingual laborers who are educated but working construction or restaurant jobs because they’re familiar with them and fear change.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “When I came here, I was 11, and my dad worked in a restaurant. I didn’t stop working in a restaurant until I was 26.
“I know a lot of construction workers who have their degrees. They have their education, but they’re still working in construction because it pays well.
“I tell companies to really try to get their message across to some of these people. They’re working physical jobs, but they’re making good money. And they might be intimidated by using the computer. We ask (companies) to think outside the box in trying to recruit bilingual staff.”
He also suggested recruiting bilingual staff from other states.
The Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber belongs to a coalition of regional chambers including Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Wichita, St. Louis, Omaha, New Orleans and Little Rock. He said all of those cities are also experiencing a shortage of bilingual professionals, and they network together to share resources and try to solve the problem.
Trevino recently spoke with a representative from the Kansas City Hispanic chamber trying to recruit bilinguals from Tulsa to Kansas City.
He pointed to the Tulsa Police Department as an example of successful recruiting outside the state.
Officer Jason Willingham, who provides media relations for TPD, said the department has 18 certified bilingual officers on staff. He said recruiting more bilingual officers is TPD’s recruiters’ “constant focus.”
TPD requires its officers to have four-year college degrees, and it recruits at universities with criminal justice departments. This year, TPD officers recruited at the University of New Mexico, University of Texas-El Paso and Western New Mexico University. Recruiters attend careers fairs at the universities, speak in criminal justice classrooms and recruit via the Web.
He said officers who pass a required test and are certified bilingual are awarded additional pay. In addition to serving as police officers, they also work as translators when needed. He said there are officers on staff who are fluent in Spanish but don’t want to be on call as translators and don’t take the test.
Problem Not Solved
Trevino said, in addition to recruiting bilinguals from outside the state, local Spanish-speaking residents should be encouraged to attend English-as-a-second-language classes, provided at Tulsa Community College for both credit and continuing education and by the YWCA of Greater Tulsa for free.
Being bilingual will not only guarantee them a job, but it will almost always guarantee a higher-paying job and job security.
He and Vega-Trevino also encouraged Spanish-speaking parents to teach the language to their English-speaking children and non-Spanish-speaking Latino high school students to learn the language.
Everyone seemed to agree that filling the gap in bilingual professionals is a process that will take years.
“Obviously, there has to be some encouragement of Spanish-speaking people to go to college,” Ruggles said. “There’s a progression here that we’re skipping. If you’re not turning out professionals, it’s because they’re probably not getting college degrees. And the reason that doesn’t happen usually involves the almighty dollar.”
MTTA continues its search for a bilingual professional and a bridge to the Latino community.
“Every application that comes in, we interview, whether we think, from the application, the candidate looks any good or not,” Ruggles said. “On the off chance that we might be missing something, we interview every single applicant who comes in and says they’re bilingual. We want so desperately to find someone to fit.” ?