Tips for Managing Non-English-Speaking Employees

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Who are the best cabinetmakers in our shop right now? Well, those would be José, Manuel, Gonzalo, Leung and Luis.
Indeed, the future of shop labor is here, and it has a different face. For the manual work we do, the people who are willing, able and skilled are often people not born in this country. And, this will bring new challenges to the way you manage your shop.

The U.S. has always been a nation of many different nationalities, and immigrants now make up more than 12% of the population, or over 35 million people – at least 11 million of whom are of Hispanic origin.

If you haven't already done so, you will eventually be hiring Spanish-speaking employees. On both coasts and in the South, the construction industry has seen a huge influx of skilled Spanish labor. We need to think about how a non-English-speaking labor force will impact our business.

What’s the best way to get an advantage over your competition? By having the better team, of course.
So, a tight, hard-working labor force is the best road to making consistent money in your shop. If you want to get that rift-sawn oak kitchen built in three weeks and not five, it’s your employees who can make the difference.

We’ve found at our shop that the work ethic of most immigrants is very high. They want to make it in their newly adopted country, and are prepared to put in the time, energy and effort to see that it happens. They’re not afraid of a solid day’s work. Many of the kids coming out of our own high schools are not prepared to do that. You may find, too, that your non-English-speaking employees will be a lot more ready to work overtime to get things done. Some of our Latino workers joke about “La Semana Inglesa” (“The English Workweek”) being only five days long, while they’ve been brought up to always work six days, including Saturdays. Having employees who are willing to work overtime is a good way to punch out work when you need to.

As their skills increase, these folks will become the core of your shop, doing the complex work – the curved doors, the one-of-a-kind cabinets, the veneer or shaper work.

Some Hispanic workers will help you find other employees, too. There’s a tight and extended family network going on in many immigrant communities, and that can be a great employment agency for your shop. Good employees often have a brother, a cousin or a friend looking for work. And there’s another advantage here – the process can be self-policing. If someone gets his buddy a job, the last thing that buddy can do is mess up, because it shows the person who got him the job in the first place in a bad light.

The loyalty factor is a big deal, as well. Shops often find that their immigrant labor sticks around – and many of these employees, if treated fairly and decently, will view their shop as “family.” They’ll be there for you when you need them, going the extra mile, not just with overtime, but with effort and dedication, too.

Of course there are some challenges to be aware of when hiring non-English-speaking employees. First, there’s the language barrier. Many excellent shop workers are not fluent in English. So, if your set up is such that you do a lot of daily communicating and explaining with your people, you may have a problem. Perhaps you can let your shop drawings and cutlists do the talking for you. After all, this is where the information should be anyway, right?

Either way, you should encourage your immigrant employees to learn English. Maybe they can enroll in classes, and you may want to even help finance that. You could make an effort to learn the basics of Spanish, if that’s the predominant language. Get some tapes or CDs, put them on in your truck as you drive around, and start learning yourself. You may end up speaking half-and-half – Spanglish – which is catching on in some areas of the country already.

Sometimes it can help to have a designated translator in your shop – someone who understands cabinetmaking and is reasonably proficient in both languages. When you’re going over complex work with the people who are going to build it, it’s critical they understand what’s required. So, take the time at the beginning to make sure it’s all clear, with that translator helping out.

There are often cultural differences you need to be aware of when hiring employees who are new to the country. Not everyone you hire will be as well-educated as you’d like. And sometimes people who speak a language other than English will use offensive language, assuming it will not be understood by clients. But this needs to be addressed, as more and more people – your clients included – are multi-lingual these days, and clients may be offended by careless swearing.

On the other hand, family values, politeness, respect and fair treatment rank very high among many cultures, especially with many Latino employees. You need to be aware of these things as you develop your new shop workforce.

You may also run into another challenge: Fake Social Security and identity cards are sometimes used at the time of hire. This may not seem like your problem, and you may choose to turn a blind eye to it, but be aware you’re running a risk of illegally employing people if you know about forgeries.

If your shop work involves any delivering in company vehicles, you may want to be careful as far as driving records, too. As with anyone you employ, it’s wise to have your insurance company run a check on employee driver’s licenses at the time of hire. Check for any DUIs or suspensions.

And one last thing: Many immigrants are very motivated to work, which can be good and bad for your shop. If your people are doing side jobs on the weekends and in the evenings, they can get burned out easily – and may not perform up to par when they’re working in your shop on your jobs. Talk to them about what they’re doing, and keep an eagle eye on any fatigue you might notice. That’s the last thing you want to see around table saws and routers, right?

Immigrants have always made huge contributions to this country, and they continue to do so – many, increasingly, in cabinet shops. Good, hard-working employees will bring major benefits to your shop and to what you do. Your work will look good and, with the right crew, it will be done efficiently.

While those bilingual employees are tremendously helpful, sometimes the guys who speak less and just get the work done are equally valuable. It’s the future of our shops, so we might as well embrace it. Buena suerte, good luck!

Read past columns on Cabinet Shop Management by Stephen Nicholls, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Website at