The cleaning work force quickly is becoming an amalgam of cultures from Asia, Europe and the southern hemisphere, providing new challenges for building service contractors.

Emerging 2000 U.S. Census reports and Contracting Profits’ own survey results now show the industry’s work force is experiencing a radical makeover at a much faster pace than what the majority of BSCs currently experience.

Almost 60 percent of contractors responding to a recent reader survey said they had at least some recent immigrants — people who have entered the country legally in the last few years — on staff. The average percentage per company was about 16 percent of the work force, with most companies drawing from only one or two different cultures. However, 16 percent of respondents — mostly medium to large contractors covering a wide range of states — indicated that more than half of their staff were immigrants from a wide range of countries. Origins ranged from Mexico and other countries in Central and South America to Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and even South Africa. Sociologists say these BSCs are an indication of what’s to come.

“What these contractors are experiencing [reflects a national trend] ,” says Mark Mather, policy analyst for the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, D.C., private, non-profit research organization that tracks U.S. Census data. “The service sector always has a demand for low-wage labor and a new group of immigrants, and children of past-immigrants, seems to be answering the call.”

This turn of events has added new challenges to managing a cleaning company: BSCs must make sure all chemical information is translated to meet U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hazard communication standards. They have to re-think how they train staff and who they work with to accommodate language barriers and cultural differences. And they have to educate themselves and their customers regarding a variety of cultural nuances that can come into play when communicating with one another.

If one thing is constant in the industry, it’s that BSCs who provide proper staff support are successful, while those who don’t, become mired in high turnover rates (300 percent or more) and experience drops in service quality. Not properly aiding a growing number of multi-cultural and non-English-speaking workers can mean disaster for any cleaning contractor.

What has changed
Until now, many contractors didn’t know if the influx of different immigrants was an increasing trend or a flash in the pan — and about a third of contractors surveyed haven’t hired from this group yet. So the majority of contractors seem to have held off on investing in translators or English classes, expecting the economy to slow down and provide more variety in job applicants.

Sociologists now say that is unlikely to happen, at least in this decade.

One reason: More than 28 million foreign-born people resided in the U.S. last year, according to U.S. Census reports. More than half of these foreign-born residents were from Latin America; more than 25 percent relocated from Asia. The majority of these residents are of working age and trends show they mostly work in service industries.

Another reason: Census reports indicate the Hispanic population now has surpassed African Americans as the largest U.S. minority group with 35.3 million people (overall janitorial jobs in the U.S. in 1999 were only around 900,000). A total many population researchers didn’t expect for another three to five years — and some statisticians have alleged that the 2000 Census reflect an undercount.

Also, record high employment has given the traditional crop of cleaning job applicants more options than almost ever before, thinning the applicant pool.

A 50-year high in employment has contributed to a gross national product of more than $9.4 trillion, in early 2001, and a national unemployment rate as low at 4.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some areas of the country are experiencing rates as low as 1 percent, leaving BSCs with precious few applicants to choose from. Thus, building service contractors are left to compete with other service industries such as fast food or retail to fill those added jobs.

Even if an economic slowdown occurs, sociologists say the “graying” of America and higher minority birth rates will continue to fuel high employment, leaving contractors no choice but to turn to a largely unskilled and non-English-speaking immigrant population in need of work.

Larger language barrier
A major language barrier between managers and workers is the most evident problem associated with the influx of immigrants into the cleaning work force.

Contracting Profits’ survey respondents reported Spanish was most common among newly immigrated workers. But many said significant percentages of staff spoke languages ranging from Mongolian to German, French to Iranian, and a variety of Asian and Southeast Asian dialects.

A third of all the training materials American Training Video, Libertyville, Ill., has sold in recent years are in Spanish, says CEO Duane Machtig. American Training Video has produced the majority of the cleaning industry’s training videos since the 1970s and has translated some into such languages as Thai, French, German and Portuguese.

More than half of respondents had some non-English-speaking workers on staff, at an average of about 14 percent per company. English-as-a-second-language (ESL) workers — people who may have another native tongue, but can speak English to varying degrees — were found in 70 percent of respondents’ staffs, making up an average of about 27 percent per staff.

One reason contractors have experienced greater language barriers is that this new wave of immigrants tends to take longer to learn English than their predecessors — if they learn it at all.

Highly concentrated immigrant communities in large port cities where they tend to settle make it easier for immigrants to co-exist in the U.S. without learning English, says Mather. Migration to rural areas also is setting up similar situations in less likely areas of the country as well, adds Ruben Hernandez-Leon, a sociology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Plus, an overall understanding in the U.S. of strong cultural ties makes it more acceptable in some areas to speak a native language.

Yet, Contracting Profits’ survey found that about 10 percent of contractors who hired non-English-speaking or ESL workers didn’t offer any translation accommodations (see chart). And none of the survey respondents said they offered product labels and instructions in workers’ languages, even though OSHA requires labels on just about every chemical container workers come in contact with so staff can identify what they are using to clean.

Many BSCs have bilingual supervisors available. That often is the only resource workers have if they don’t speak enough English. But sociologists, industry leaders and community outreach groups agree that this step is not enough.

Common sense also dictates better efforts than the overall industry currently has made: Just like chemical labeling, OSHA requires contractors keep MSDS information accessible to all employees. But English data won’t satisfy the agency’s requirements if workers can’t read that language.

Another problem is that some BSCs are less apt to offer translation if workers know some English, but there is no way of knowing if the workers’ skills are strong enough to process all of the vital explanations given in English. Sometimes that means hiring people who speak some English can be more of a problem than those who speak no English – at least contractors know where employees stand if they have to translate everything for them.

Contractors also have reported that some facility managers become frustrated if their cleaning staff have difficulty speaking English, making it hard for the customer contact to communicate with workers. And, if training isn’t completely comprehensible, service quality will drop off and turnover will rise.

Where you least expect it
While contractors in large cities such as Los Angeles or New York are more used to the melting pot and its necessary adjustments, BSCs in more rural areas, who are just starting to see an influx of non-English speaking workers, are quite perplexed by the situation.

“We have maybe 20,000 people living in our town, yet our company seems to be a melting pot of many different origins right now,” says Terry Zastrow, of ZBM Inc., Watertown, Wis. The company has had to handwrite employee handbooks in Czechoslovakian and Russian because it didn’t have access to a keyboard that would translate the characters.

Similarly, three years ago there were no immigrants in the Indianapolis area, says Dave Bego, president of Executive Management Services Inc., Indianapolis. Now Hispanic immigrants make up about 10 to 15 percent of his staff throughout Indiana, requiring translations.

The reason: immigrant migration from the typical port-of-entry cities to more rural areas where there are better jobs and promise of a better environment to raise a family.

“These workers might have come through these rural areas as transient agricultural workers, but now they’re stopping to settle and word of mouth is bringing more people into their communities,” says Hernandez-Leon.

The most current estimates from the 1998 Census estimate about 800,000 Hispanics have left California alone for other states.

States that are now seeing an influx of Hispanics and other minorities are Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina. Other states expected to see an increase are Indiana, Delaware, Kansas, Maryland and Nebraska.

BSCs near these new communities have the toughest time adjusting to their new work force because their cities and towns still may not fully accept new immigrants. Some towns battle high levels of racial prejudice sparked by the new residents. This hostility can make it difficult for contractors who hire immigrants to work in buildings where customers may have a bias.

One BSC from Georgia reported in the reader survey that customers sometimes request all English-speaking workers or are overly suspicious of immigrants working alone in their buildings at night. His answer was to shift English-speaking crews to those building rather than affront the customers by trying explain that Hispanic workers were equally qualified.

How to compensate
Since sociologists expect immigrants will continue to make up the majority of service industry work forces for at least the next decade, contractors must take multiple steps to support their new staff, says Becky Gasho, director of community services for LaCasa of Goshen, a rural Indiana community outreach group that helps the area’s burgeoning new Hispanic community assimilate into local society.

BSCs should offer job applications in English and the most predominant languages of their applicants, as well as provide all guidelines, policies, procedures and safety rules in those languages, advises Goshen. Her group can translate information for local companies, but says that hiring a professional translator can become expensive.

Instead, contractors can place an ad for a bilingual person in community papers, says American Training Video’s Machtig.

He also suggests that contractors who don’t want to pay the roughly $2,500 it takes to translate training videos into other languages simply turn off the volume and have a bilingual translator interpret the steps. Some BSCs have found this method very successful.

Some contractors offer English classes for their non-English-speaking or ESL employees. There can be problems with workers not attending classes. So some BSCs use attendance or graduation as an incentive to pay the employees’ tuition at a local school or community center — not paying if they fail to complete their courses.

Similarly, BSCs such as Bego are holding classes for their management staff to learn the language and cultural nuances of their non-English-speaking employees. Bego’s company offers classes twice a week.

One North Carolina contractor, Supreme Maintenance, created a program to teach employees and managers cleaning-related phrases in each other’s languages. The program was so successful at Supreme, that owner David Murphy spun off the training program into a separate company that has sold the training on a CD-rom to other contractors.

Beyond the spoken word
Language represents only one of the many cultural differences among immigrants.That’s why some contractors have offered other aids to help these people assimilate into their new communities. Atlanta-based One-Source offers citizenship classes, as well as seminars to help with daily things these workers may not understand — opening a bank account, managing a check book or applying for a driver’s license.

“These all show that we care for the employees and we’ll help them not only get a job, but try to improve their lives,” says OneSource president Rich Kissane.
Both Hernandez-Leon and Mather remind contractors that a variety of different cultures make up the new Hispanic and Asian populations they now face. One subset may be quite different from another, requiring extra sensitivity to cultural differences.

In Bego’s Florida branches, where there are many Hispanic, Korean and Cuban workers, he tries to keep like cultures and languages together in each crew, because he thinks it’s already hard enough for them to learn English, without adding each others’ languages and cultures to the mix.

Whatever the complication, BSCs face a difficult choice, make the sometimes large investment into accommodations for these new workers, or suffer the many consequences that can impact service quality and customer satisfaction, which all contractors need to succeed.

Accommodating a New Work Force
Building service contractors responding to A recent survey checked off the following accommodations they offer to non-English and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) employees:
Accommodations* Hire non-english workers Hire ESL workers
Supervisors/managers who speak other languages 90% 73%
Training videos/literature in different languages 56% 50%
Executives who speak other languages 39% 36%
English classes or reimbursed tuition for English classes 21% 23%
Language classes for supervisors/managers to understand the employees 18% 1.6%
Product labels, instructions in different languages 0% 0%
Didn’t list any accommodations 10% 10.5%
* Percentages do not add up to 100 percent because respondents could check off more than one category.