Demand grows for bilingual workers
Rockford Register Star
August 29, 2005

By ELIZABETH DAVIES, Rockford Register Star

August 29, 2005

BELVIDERE -- Mireya Gloria has all the knowledge you would want in a banker. But one extra skill sets her apart from others: She speaks Spanish.

This bilingual banking associate at Blackhawk Bank in Belvidere spends about 75 percent of her workday speaking Spanish. It's a skill that broadens her company's client base.

"Being bilingual has most definitely helped my career," she said. "It has not only opened doors for new opportunities, but has enabled me to better serve my clients. Many of these Hispanic clients are only beginning to integrate into mainstream banking, and much of my time is dedicated to giving them financial education."

Across the country, 17.9 percent of the population speak a language other than English at home. In the Rock River Valley, 10 percent of the population does.

Those numbers, which will continue to rise, give many business owners incentive to hire workers who speak other languages.

That's what motivated Rockford's Miller Engineering to recently place an ad for a bilingual office worker. The company struggles with a language barrier between its English-speaking staff and the Spanish-speaking clients who call for heating, air conditioning, plumbing or electrical help.

"Where we're located, there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people living in the area," said office manager Lynn Hanson. "We get a lot of calls from them, and the staff can't communicate with them. It's happening more and more."

Nearly 6 percent of the population in the Rock River Valley speaks Spanish at home, making it the most popular language here after English.

The detailed nature of medicine -- describing ailments, explaining treatments -- makes it necessary for doctors to have translators on hand. That's where Linda Aldana comes in.

Aldana, whose learned Spanish while living in Mexico for two years, finds plenty of use for her second language while working as a nursing assistant at Swedish-American Hospital. About once a month, a Spanish-speaking patient will turn up on her unit, and she'll be called in to translate. And, as more and more people at the hospital learn that she's bilingual, she gets called to other departments.

There's no doubt this skill is helping her career. She one day wants to become a registered nurse and sees her ability to speak Spanish opening doors along the line. Already, she is invited to stay in exam rooms with patients so that she can translate for the doctor.

"Usually, you step out of the room," she said. "Normally, you wouldn't get to stay for that. It's an educational experience."

And she knows that while nurses are in great demand among hospitals, bilingual nurses are particularly valuable commodities.

"I'm definitely hoping it will open more opportunities for me," Aldana said.

But when someone such as Aldana isn't on hand, most hospitals -- SwedishAmerican included -- pay for an interpreter hot line. It connects doctors with translators who are familiar with the medical field.

Last month, SwedishAmerican doctors made about 160 calls to the hot line, asking for translators in Spanish, Polish, Albanian and -- ironically -- Swedish.

While it employs professional translators, the hospital keeps an eye out for job candidates who have good health-care skills and the ability to speak other languages.

"Certainly, with the direction our population is growing, we as a business need ... to be prepared to provide that service," said Sharon Whalen, patient advocate at SwedishAmerican.

That changing population created an entirely new job for Abel Garcia -- Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Rockford Public Library. In April, the library started efforts to market to the local Hispanic community. Garcia told residents about his program during talks at local churches, dances and special events.

The results? "We've made tremendous strides," he said. "Our classes are growing, and the demand is huge."

Weekly salsa dancing classes held over the summer averaged between 65 and 75 attendees.

A computer class taught in Spanish is attracting between 12 and 14 students -- and there are only 10 computers.

Garcia says his bilingual skills were key in making gains in the Hispanic community.

"Because I'm Hispanic, right away it gives credibility to what I'm saying," he said. "I know the culture, and I know the language."

In Belvidere, the police department tries to recruit bilingual officers -- it has three now -- and also asks bilingual civilians to sign up to translate as needed.

Given that 12.5 percent of Belvidere residents are Hispanic, Police Chief Jan Noble said, it's a strategy that "just makes sense."

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