Removing Barriers: Facilitating access to opportunities for some of the most productive members of our industry.
By Jesus Vetencourt, VP of Canadian Operations, Wright Canada Holdings Ltd.
Wright Canada Holdings Ltd. is a subsidiary company to Wright Service Corp.
When I was offered the opportunity to write this article, my first thought was; an article – how about a book? Being a native Spanish speaker that immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela, whose first job in this industry was a groundworker in an aerial lift crew in Omaha, Nebraska, and who could barely say a few words in English on my first day at work, an article is certainly not enough real estate to write about my experience in the utility vegetation management industry. My second thought was; I should use this as an opportunity to trigger action rather than just share my experiences.
With that second thought in mind, I would like to offer you some reflections based on my experience, hoping they will move you to take action and help remove what I consider to be the most challenging barrier for some of our fellow industry members’ career advancements.
I estimate that 40% or more of the total members of our industry in the U.S. are first- or second-generation immigrants, primarily native Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America. Within this group, a marked majority struggle with what we sometimes call the language barrier, or in plain terms, the lack of English language skills. In most cases, language barriers hinder the employee’s efforts to build relationships that can lead to career development and advancement. It is very difficult to gain access to additional opportunities if you can’t communicate well with your supervisor or clients. I think about this group of people as having a tremendous impact in our industry, but an almost muted voice.
So how do we tackle this barrier? Here is a thought that may help you approach this issue from a different angle and trigger action within your organization, vendor/client or partner community; I think employers own the language barrier.
If you start thinking about the lack of English language skills in the same way you do with any other gap in your employee’s skillset, the only logical conclusion is to invest in training, tools or systems to bridge the gap. Of the Wright Service Corp. family of companies, Wright Tree Service has the largest percentage of native Spanish speakers.
Here are a few actions that we are taking to remove this barrier. We have a Spanish program committee comprised of employees from across our organization working to provide high-quality Spanish translations to employees that struggle with English language skills, ranging from our safety program and operating procedures to group benefits memos. We’ve also made sure employee resources, like our clothing and merchandise store, are available in Spanish. It is simple; if these employees have access to all relevant information in a format they can consume, you are already helping them get into position for opportunities and advancement and, more importantly, you are leveling the field. We currently have over 400 LinkedIn Learning courses available in Spanish through our learning management system and we’re always expanding.
Another initiative is encouraging native English speakers to learn Spanish. For example, every team member of the Wright Tree Service safety department is currently enrolled in a program to learn Spanish language skills. The aim is for them to improve their communication with their fellow Spanish speaking coworkers.
At this point you may be wondering; how about learning English? And to that I say, absolutely – that’s ultimately the overarching goal. To that end, there are several options, from partnerships with community colleges or non-profits to in-house programs, that can help our fellow coworkers build their English language skills. I suggest that initiatives that aim to bridge the communication gap in both directions yield the best results. From my experience, one thing that motivated me to work hard to learn English was seeing my employer doing their part by allowing me access to information with Spanish translations. Once I gained access to the information and I educated myself enough, reading or discussing the information in English became progressively easier. It is a great formula that I challenge you to pilot.
Another area that is often overlooked when implementing some of these initiatives and creating an inclusive environment is access to the rich pool of additional talent and skills available within this community. Throughout my career, I have come across areas where I met people who struggled to communicate in English that had degrees, certificates, experience in other trades, entrepreneurship experience and excellent leadership skills that could have been leveraged by bridging the gap. I encourage you to look beyond the language barrier and avoid equating capacity or intelligence with someone’s ability to communicate in English.
At the start of my career, I was very fortunate to come across some fantastic people at Wright Tree Service that looked beyond my broken English and provided me with opportunities to show them my potential even if it required additional effort on their part. I will always be thankful to them. Now in my current role, I am happy to be able to work on initiatives that help other employees have better access to trainings and opportunities.
In closing, I acknowledge that some of you may need to get outside your comfort zone or set aside preconceived notions about this matter in order to contribute or drive these type of actions, especially in the current social climate. But I choose to believe you will quickly realize it is the right thing to do for business and your fellow industry colleagues.