No English? No problem at supplier Gentex

This article was originally published here: https://www.autonews.com/suppliers/gentex-turns-spanish-speaking-workers-solve-labor-shortage-issue.

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The west Michigan mirror supplier Gentex has had a problem for the past few years. It has new business coming in fast and furious — but that’s not the problem. The issue is, like other manufacturers around the country, Gentex has been hampered by a shortage of workers to handle it.

Many in the auto industry are coping with paltry recruitment results, increased wage pressure and — during the past couple of years — higher turnover.

To compete in the hard early days of the pandemic, Gentex began sweetening its employment offer: raising its production line pay to $17.50 an hour and offering company stock options to new hires who stayed at least a year. But it wasn’t enough.

So the company turned to an innovative new approach to bring in more employees to help it expand production: It began hiring Spanish-speaking workers – not just people who might speak Spanish around the house, but people who do not know enough English to apply for a job.

The initiative was not aimed at Hispanic people who might speak Spanish around the house but people who do not know enough English to apply for a job.

Gentex decided to remake itself into a bilingual company where employees do not need to speak English. That was a decision that reached beyond simply recruiting and hiring people, said Dan Quintanilla, director of talent acquisition for the 5,400-employee supplier, which had sales of $1.73 billion last year. It meant re-creating Gentex to operate — from human resources to production supervision and planning — in a new language.

“Talent acquisition isn’t the easiest job to have these days,” Quintanilla said. “We need more people. And as we look around our communities, nearly a quarter of the population is Spanish-speaking. But we weren’t able to appeal to them because — how do you come in and apply for a job if the application is written in English, if the interview is conducted in English, if the benefits are explained in English, if training is in English and if your supervisor only speaks English?”

Longtime Gentex employee Rosa Estrada, now the company controller, urged the company to do more to reach into the local Hispanic communities, Quintanilla recalls. Senior management heard her appeal. But pulling that off, the manufacturer realized, would require big changes throughout the company.

Quintanilla reeled off the list of necessary changes.

  • Job applications were written in Spanish.
  • HR needed staffers who could conduct job interviews in Spanish.
  • The company needed people to conduct onboarding of new hires in Spanish.
  • Online training instruction and production line training was done in Spanish.
  • Shop floor signs were translated to Spanish, as were the company’s website and corporate communications and employee meetings.
  • Safety instructions were provided in Spanish.
  • Teams of direct supervisors needed to be Spanish-speaking so that new hires can seek information and understand the answers.

Gentex first created a Spanish-language-only production line to assemble exterior auto-dimming mirrors, with Spanish-speaking line workers, supervisors, housekeeping and engineering.

The program, which Gentex calls LEP, for Limited English Proficiency, now employs 130. But the supplier is expanding it to other production lines at its eight Michigan plants. The company will soon launch an LEP line at its newest plant not far from Gentex’s corporate headquarters in Zeeland.

It announced last month it will invest $300 million in a new manufacturing and distribution operation in Zeeland that will hire 500 more people. Quintanilla said that expansion will get a big lift from the LEP program.

“You can hire anybody,” he said. “But it takes more than that to create a successful work force. It’s important that when somebody starts a job they feel like they belong. You can’t throw up a document in English and say, ‘Here, you need to sign this.’ You can’t say, ‘Here are your benefits, your paycheck, life insurance, health insurance’ — and it’s all in English.

“For some of us,” he added, “this was very personal. I have family members who couldn’t get a job at Gentex because they couldn’t speak or read English.”

The point of Gentex’s new approach was to be able to freely recruit employees without needing them to learn English first. But since the hiring began, some have asked the company for English-language classes. More surprising, some of Gentex’s existing English-speaking work force have requested Spanish-language classes to better communicate with the staff of the new production lines.

The company has been buying large numbers of subscriptions to the immersive language- training program Rosetta Stone.

Gentex is now considering other ways to expand its multilingual concept. Quintanilla says the company is looking into other substantial demographic groups in its area, including people from Southeast Asia.

“But it will be critical to have the right leaders to enable us do that,” he said.

The innovation was not a magic wand that solved all of Gentex’s recruiting needs. As successful as the results have been, the supplier keeps expanding and is desperate to add more workers.

“We still need more people,” Quintanilla said. “But without our new people, we’d be hurting real bad right now. That would be a whole lot of people not producing parts.”

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