Bilingual employees becoming more important

Published 10:52 am Friday, August 31, 2012

By Elizabeth Baier

Minnesota Public Radio News

An hour into his shift as a community service officer, Austin’s Ernesto Cantu gets a call on his personal cell phone.

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“What happened?” he asks the caller in Spanish. “Where do you live now?”

Cantu scribbles an address on a notepad and heads to a home on the other side of town.

“I don’t know this lady,” he said. “She just called me and she goes ‘somebody came to my house and stole money.’”

As the only bilingual staffer in the Austin Police Department, Cantu takes a lot of phone calls from Spanish-speaking residents who prefer to call him before they call 911.

“They think that they’re going to get in trouble. And I have to explain [to] them, ‘No, you have to call the police when you see something,’ he said. “When they call me, they know that they’re going to get some help or some advice or something like that.”

Cantu’s presence in the department has helped it better respond to the city’s Latino population, something public and private sector employers throughout Minnesota would like to do also. Many are looking for bilingual employees.

The phone call to Cantu came from Carmela Hernandez, who is from Mexico. She told him someone stole $250 from her purse. After he arrived at her home, he reported the call to the department.

When Officer Samuel Schuweiler responded, Cantu stayed to translate the exchange.

Cantu is one of three bilingual employees who work for the city of Austin. Rochester has 37; Willmar 4, Albert Lea 2, and Mankato 1. St. James expects to hire its first bilingual employee by early September. Other cities like Duluth and St. Cloud say they have bilingual employees but don’t track their numbers.

There is no specific data that show exactly how many bilingual workers there are in Minnesota. But according to Census estimates, in 2010 about 10 percent of Minnesotans spoke a language other than English at home, up 13 percent since 2000.

While the demand for bilingual employees in Minnesota is far from being a trend, there are some customer service jobs where language skills are a big plus, said Cameron Macht, a regional labor market analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development in central Minnesota.

Macht, who analyzes the regional labor market around Willmar, cites it as a good example.

“I know some of the local banks have picked up bilingual tellers who can speak Spanish or perhaps some other language that might be in more demand here,” he said. “And it’s because they’re trying to reach out to those communities and increase their customer base there.”

Bilingual employees are also in demand in call centers, schools, hospitals, and retail sales. Macht expects language skills to become more important for job-seekers, especially those who work directly with customers, as Minnesota becomes more diverse.

“[If] the percentage of the population that speaks a language other than English continues to increase in the state, then demand for multilingual speakers, especially in customer facing position is going to increase,” he said.

One place where that’s already happening is Worthington. There, nearly 30 percent of the city’s population speaks a language other than English at home. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of such residents grew by 18 percent.

The city has 11 bilingual employees, including 10 in the police department. Police Chief Michael Cumisky said officers receive a monthly stipend of $208 if they speak another language. The department also covers the cost of sending officers to school to learn another language, chiefly Spanish.

“We think that it’s beneficial,” Cumisky said “We’re not bending over backwards. We’re just trying to do a more thorough job for all the people that live and work in Worthington.”

Cumisky himself learned to speak Spanish when he took the department’s top job about 10 years ago. He said having dispatch and patrol officers speak the language alleviates a huge stress when trying to communicate with someone who might be in an emergency.