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NM’s bilingual workforce falls short of needs

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bilingualism is touted as a strength of New Mexico’s labor pool, but a roundtable discussion attended by Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday described how the colloquial variety of Spanish commonly spoken here falls short of meeting the needs of business.

“Border Spanish” was the descriptive term Martinez used, recounting her own experience in losing what was her first language as a child to institutional prejudices at parochial school and pressure from her parents to assimilate into the mainstream English-speaking culture.

The unschooled Spanish spoken by many bilingual residents, often passed down from generation to generation, evidently lacks the sophisticated fluency needed in an increasingly international business world, particularly in terms of call center work.

“It’s starting to backfire on us,” said Debbie Johnson, director of the entrepreneurship and economic development office at Central New Mexico Community College, which is starting a major bilingual education initiative.

The problem is that while many New Mexicans speak Spanish, they’re otherwise illiterate — unable to read or write it proficiently. Their vocabularies can be limited, lacking in business and professional terms, Johnson said.

A solution is to promote Spanish as a workforce development program at CNM and in schools, Johnson said at meeting of the State  Workforce Development Board attended by more than 60 people at the CNM Workforce Training Center.

The meeting was intended to set the groundwork for implementing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Congress’ first major  reform of the public workforce system in 15 years. The new act replaces the Workforce Investment Act of 1998.

Tuesday’s roundtable discussion was an opportunity for business people to suggest priorities for employment, education, training and support services provided to job seekers through the new act at the state level.

Bolstering the skills of entry-level  or otherwise younger workers was a common theme raised by speakers from a broad range of employment sectors.

In the tourism sector, the problem could be as basic as good manners and helpfulness, said Jen Schroer of the Hospitality Assocation of New Mexico, noting that New Mexico’s repeat visitor rate has declined and is now lower than that of surrounding states.

At the Fidelity Investments customer service center, which currently has 200 job openings, spokeswoman Leeann Kravitz said an issue that arises with some new hires is low credit scores in background checks.

“I think there’s an opportunity for financial literacy training,” she said.

Basic training in technology was suggested by Linda Walsh of Canon Information Technology Services, which employs 115 people at a technical call center, including 75-80 in technical support positions.

Of the 450-500 job applicants tested for the technical support position, only about 150 passed the required technical assessment, she said. A similar call center in Chesapeake, Va., had a higher pass rate.