Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Language Barrier: The Spanish-speaking population is surging in the midstate. What’s a company to do?

Screenshot 2016-08-24 20.52.29Businesses that want to sell to and serve our area’s growing Latino population find themselves in something of a double bind.

They need to be able to communicate with consumers who frequently feel more comfortable speaking Spanish than English. But, to do so, they first must attract qualified workers who are bilingual, a high-demand skill set often difficult to find.

“Hiring bilingual talent is incredibly important to PNC’s business strategy, especially as our customer and client base becomes increasingly diverse,” affirmed Amanda Snow, vice president, talent acquisition for the Pittsburgh-based financial services company. “Having employees with diverse experiences and skills, including bilingual, can better serve clients and customers throughout our footprint.”

PNC has a great need for English/Spanish speakers across many different lines of business. It employs bilingual employees in customer service, retail banking, investments, wealth management and corporate and institutional banking.

Data show the challenges that companies like PNC face in our area. Dauphin County’s total population rose a scant 1.8 percent from 2010 to 2015, but Latino residents jumped by 25 percent. Today, about 23,400 county residents, 8.6 percent, are of Hispanic origin, according to the U.S. Census.

It’s no surprise then that south-central Pennsylvania’s Latinos wield a hefty buying power of $2.1 billion, according to George Fernandez, CEO of Latino Connection, a marketing and communication firm linking businesses with Latino audiences. But are businesses doing enough to attract Latinos as both customers and employees? While some companies say they’re trying, Fernandez is calling on the business community to do more.

Many companies have “put a certain dollar value” on trying to reach Latino customers and potential hires through advertising, but “that amount is next to nothing,” Fernandez said. “It’s withholding them from success and from attracting more and more multicultural talent moving to the region.”

In the meantime, young Latinos are finding opportunities in other parts of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Berks and Lehigh counties, he said.


Why Diversity?

As with the banking sector, health care companies face similar dual-language barriers.

As in any business, communication assures delivery of quality services, but health care providers must also “make sure patients are receiving the information you’re giving them and complying with the information you’re giving them,” said Tina Nixon, PinnacleHealth vice president, mission effectiveness and chief diversity officer.

In the past, children were often de facto interpreters for non-English speaking parents, but that meant translating medical terms and “information that is really not age-appropriate,” she said.

Today, PinnacleHealth relies on phone and Skype interpretation services to translate many conversations. But, when live translation is needed, the call goes out for a certified healthcare interpreter. At Pinnacle, the staffer responding might be Patient Representative Elisabeth Pérez.

Pérez, who grew up speaking Spanish at home, pursued the rigorous certification because she was often getting calls to interpret but, lacking the authorization to join healthcare conversations, couldn’t intercede. Effective communication assures that patients understand their plan of care, comply with instructions, and “are more compliant in returning for follow-up care,” she said.

“They will return because they know there’s someone to assist them,” she said. “The patient does feel more comfortable in that environment when someone’s there who’s familiar with their language.”


Hiring Challenges

Businesses seeking bilingual employees must understand that language gaps also signal cultural differences, said Fernandez. One client from an elderly-services business got little traction from an ad showing a woman playing cards, because “for some seniors and Latinos that are considered Catholic or Christian, that ad would be offensive,” he said.

Businesses advertising in Spanish to attract Spanish-speaking customers better have bilingual staff and materials to serve them, he added.

“It all boils right back down to recruitment,” Fernandez said. “The common goal is to educate the corporate organizations and help them strategize where they are now, where do they want to be, where do they need to go, and where do they start. That’s the key. Where do you start?”

For PNC, corporate-wide “and in Harrisburg specifically, finding and hiring bilingual employees is a constant challenge for us,” said Regional President Jim Hoehn. “Being bilingual is always a difference-maker when considering employment decisions.”

PNC seeks talent through online posts, working with Latino Connection and other outlets, and partnering with national and local diversity organizations, he said.

That may be a good start, but not enough businesses are on board, said Fernandez. His new membership-based initiative “Hola Harrisburg,” founded to attract Latino professionals by touting the midstate’s quality-of-life advantages, has signed only two members toward the goal of 15.

And yet, Latino audiences are as non-homogenous as any other, demanding specialized outreach, he said. As consumer researcher Nielsen classified them, they may be traditional “Latinistas;” bicultural but preferably Spanish-speaking “Heritage Keepers;” progressive “Savvy Blenders;” or culturally American “Ameri-Fans.” Each group demands different messages and tactics to reach them at their specific phases of life and circumstances, Fernandez said.


Some Solutions

Businesses should become not just bilingual but bicultural, said Fernandez. Bicultural means recognizing the perspectives and values shared by customers and potential hires.

“They need to welcome upper management and executives that are bilingual, that look like the population they are looking to hire, to welcome more than one language being spoken in the business place,” he said.

Immigrants should learn English, he said, but “it does take its time.”

“In order for businesses in southcentral Pennsylvania and all of Pennsylvania to become more successful and to get a return on investment for doing business with the largest-growing minority population in the United States, they must become bicultural businesses,” he said.

At PinnacleHealth, Nixon is revising the certified healthcare interpreter process to train more people more cost-effectively. She also schedules “cultural awareness trainings,” well received by staff accustomed to lifelong learning and intent on communicating in terms their patients understand.

“We have to look at our footprint and the individuals we are serving and educate our medical staff on how to provide those services,” she said. “We did cultural awareness trainings for how to understand our Muslim patients, how to understand our Somali patients, how to understand our Nepali patients, because those are some of the communities that are growing in this area.”

Patient Representative Pérez has been with PinnacleHealth since 1992. In her daily work, she greets former patients who return to express their appreciation, and she gets thank-yous from co-workers thrilled by any aid that bridges language barriers in delivering medical care.

“I can honestly tell you that I love my job,” she said.

That infusion of cultural awareness and language capabilities throughout the system, including executive offices, helps attract and retain bilingual staff, said Nixon.

“If people see that, and they see that dedication, they think, ‘This is great. This is where I want to be,’” she said. “All of it comes from the top.”

For more information on this issue, including how to market to the area’s Latino population, visit Latino Connection at

Author: M. Diane McCormick

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