The pork industry like many others is facing a tight labor market. An excellent, but fairly untapped source, is Hispanic workers.

Just ask Alan Sharp, partner and co-owner of Sharp Farms, Sims, N.C. "I've employed Hispanic workers for 20 years, he says. Currently, Sharp has two Hispanic employees for his 250-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, which sells market hogs and breeding stock. "Most of the workers have had some type of livestock background at another operation," he points out.

Sharp says his operation first hired seasonal employees for crop work, then some expressed interest in staying on with the pork operation. When hiring employees to work with the hogs, he looks for someone who wants to stay on permanently. This reduces employee turnover and the need for continuous training.

When talking about his Hispanic employees, Sharp describes them as hard workers with good attitudes. They are dependable and take little time off. "They're just like anyone else, they came here to make money, not go on vacation," he adds.

Most of the time, it's not hard for Sharp to find Hispanic labor. "The biggest problem we have is competing with local industries, all of which pay higher wages. It forces us to have to pay a little more money to attract them."
Besides wages, Sharp tries to offer a few benefits that the big companies may not. First, he is a bit more flexible with work hours. If an employee needs time off or wants extra hours, it's usually not a problem. Plus, Sharp tries to provide free housing if available, which he estimates saves them $400 to $500 a month in rent.

Overall, working with and managing Hispanic employees has been an enjoyable experience for Sharp.

It can be a positive experience if you approach it right. A study conducted at Cornell University examined the practice of hiring Hispanic employees on dairy operations in New York. Although the industry is different, the issues are the same.

"Language and culture are the two immediate issues that managers face when introducing Hispanic employees to their business," says Thomas Maloney, senior extension associate with the applied economics and management department at Cornell University.

To help address these challenges, Sharp tries to hire at least one bi-lingual employee to help interpret. Even with this strategy, there are occasional communication breakdowns.

As far as salaries, Hispanic employees should expect to be paid the same as their non-Hispanic counterparts. "Most of the time you have to prove the going rate when you're hiring someone who's working off of a work visa or is a seasonal employee," says Don Tyler, owner of Profitable Solutions, an employee management consulting firm in Clarks Hill, Ind. He notes that non-U.S. citizens using a work visa can work for 11.5 months, leave for two weeks, then sign up for another work period.

In his survey, Maloney found that Hispanic employees work an average of 55 to 70 hours in a six-day work week. The majority of employees came to the United States to work hard and send their income back home, so they want to work a lot of hours. On average, the employees were paid $5.50 to $9.50 per hour.

The surveyed dairy employers reported generally excellent work performance from the Hispanic workers. Let's take a look at some of the other issues the producers said they had to address.

Address Language barriers
Bridging the language gap is the first challenge when you hire Hispanic employees. This is especially difficult when none of the managers or employees are bilingual.

  • Pay for yourself and your managers to take Spanish classes at local colleges or other adult education sites.
  • Pay for your Hispanic employees to study English.
  • Use language resources, such as translation books and tapes to learn key words and phrases to assist with communications.
  • Hire a translator to come to the farm during staff training and important meetings. You also can use this person to tutor employees in Spanish and English.
  • Provide incentives and encouragement for Hispanic employees to learn English.
  • Use portable translating devices.
  • Purchase training tapes and management materials in Spanish. Make them available to Hispanic workers.
  • Offer to have someone help workers with their finances, such as budgeting, paying bills, setting up a bank account and getting insurance.

Learn about Hispanic cultures You need to understand the culture of your Hispanic employees to be an effective supervisor. Remember, there are many different Hispanic cultures, including Mexican, Cuban, Central and South American. There may be some similarities, but also many differences.

  • Ask your employees to describe life in their home country.
  • Read about the employees' culture and compare it to American culture.
  • Become trained to supervise a multi-cultural workforce. This may involve taking some classes directed specifically at this topic. Again, area universities and community colleges are good resources, as are human resource specialists and employee management consultants.
  • Become trained in workplace diversity.
  • Share what you've learned with other non-Hispanic employees within your staff.

Deal with prejudice immediately Most of the employers in the study were impressed with the behavioral characteristics of their Hispanic employees. They are friendly, respectful and have a strong work ethic. Most got along well with fellow employees. In some instances, the occasional prejudice surfaced among non-Hispanic employees after Hispanic employees were hired. There also can be prejudices within the community.

  • Address problems of prejudice in the workforce quickly and directly.
  • Create opportunities for supervisors to learn about the employees' culture.
  • Be an advocate for Hispanic employees in the community and help them get adjusted.
  • Help Hispanic employees adjust to the work environment as well.
  • Keep lines of communication open among all employees and deal with problems quickly.

Handling turnover Turnover can be a problem regardless of the worker's nationality. Turnover can be high with Hispanic employees for several reasons, including not having proper documentation to work in the United States. Hispanic employees may leave the job abruptly if they are upset or offended. They also may want to go home for an extended visit with their families. If an employer doesn't allow them time off, they will simply leave.

  • Establish a flexible staffing system that allows Hispanic employees to leave and then return to farm employment.
  • Require all employees to give two week's notice before leaving.
  • Involve employees in finding their own replacement. This seems to work well since Hispanics have a strong network of family and friends. You could even develop an incentive for them to help train their replacement.
  • Check immigration documents carefully before hiring any Hispanic employee.
  • Treat all employees with respect and dignity. That includes respecting their family and issues surrounding them.

Deal with isolation and loneliness This can be a problem, especially since farms are located in a rural area. It's wise to hire more than one Hispanic employee because of the potential for loneliness. Having friends and family in the area also helps. The Cornell study notes that Hispanics don't always participate in recreational and social activities, but it's important to offer them.

  • Provide rides to church or other social functions.
  • Encourage contact and socializing.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to meet people and make new friends.
  • Consider providing satellite television so that employees can watch Spanish-speaking programs.

Keep paperwork in order
Although you have carefully checked the appropriate documents before hiring, there is still a chance that the Hispanic job prospect entered the country illegally.

  • Carefully check the immigration status of employees. Make sure you have completed an I-9 form on each employee and check for appropirate documentation.

    In addition, help your employees make sure they have filled out all of the necessary paperwork.

  • Work with professional associations to shape immigration policies that will allow for a legal agricultural workforce. Some options may be your state's landgrant college, department of agriculture or legislature. Always take the agriculture route first, since there are special rules for this sector.
    Hispanic employees can be a great asset to your workforce, but you need to be aware of the challenges in employing a multi-cultural workforce. Being proactive in dealing with the language and cultural differences will make the transition much smoother.

Getting Past the Differences

Do your employees welcome newcomers or is it a pretty tight-knit group? These are questions you need to ask yourself before hiring workers from different cultural backgrounds.

Don Tyler, employee management consultant, Profitable Solutions, Clarks Hill, Ind., developed the following profile to determine whether a workplace could accommodate employees from different cultures.

  • Employees often talk about friends from other cultures.
  • You rarely hear racial jokes or bigoted comments.
  • Your employees spend time together after hours.
  • Your employees show sincere appreciation for each other's personal problems.
  • You have no hesitation about bringing in an employee with a significantly different background from the rest.
  • You look forward to having someone from a different culture in your workplace, rather than just looking for another "warm body".
  • Your objective in hiring cross culturally is to diversify your workforce and take advantage of a new pool of applicants, rather than trying to find "cheap help".
  • Your workforce is patient and adapts well to changes.
  • You feel your workforce can adapt to others with very different personal preferences.
  • Your employees communicate well with each other and they like to help new employees.