Economic Development and Human Resources

Language opportunity, not barrier

Businesses and organizations respond to growing Hispanic population and economic clout.

July 29, 2016
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Cherry Health, like many West Michigan organizations, is learning to speak another language.

Walk through the doors of the nonprofit’s health centers and you’ll see signs in both English and Spanish. They’re signs of the times and a statement about a growing Hispanic clientele.

Likewise, ChoiceOne Bank, a Sparta-based full-service community bank, recently started offering Spanish classes to its employees for free. President Kelly Potes said the classes are a response to the growing Hispanic community.

Latinos represent about 17 percent of Grand Rapids’ population, according to the latest U.S. Census, making them the city’s largest minority group, said Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In Holland, he said, 24 percent of the population is of Hispanic descent.

“The Hispanic community is increasing. The demographics are shifting in that there’s a huge boom in the Hispanic population, and that equates to more purchasing power,” Gonzalez said.

“If you think of the future professionals, right now in the Grand Rapids Public School System more than half of the students are of Hispanic descent. Imagine in 10 years when they graduate from college. They’re going to be our workforce and consumers.”

Cherry Health, headquartered in Grand Rapids and with 12 West Michigan locations among more than 20 throughout Michigan, is one of many West Michigan organizations continually expanding their ability to serve Spanish speakers. The nonprofit provides health care for the community, with a focus on the underserved, said Tiffany Aldrich, Cherry Health director of communications.

“All of our materials are translated into Spanish. Our brochures, our information materials and our patient materials … things of that nature are all available in Spanish,” Aldrich said. “Everything that we do is always in English and Spanish.”

Cherry Health has redesigned its communication, hiring translators to bolster a full-time staff that already includes many bilingual employees. Voices For Health, a national professional certified translation service, translated all of Cherry Health’s brochures and forms into Spanish. When Cherry Health built a new website in 2014, it added the ability for users to translate it into Spanish, Bosnian or Vietnamese.

Many other business and health industry websites are also adding such a feature, Aldrich said.

“I can speak for our organization, and we continually see it grow,” she said. “We translate all our materials. I don’t see us ever not (being) bilingual.”

Gonzalez said West Michigan’s retail, industrial and real estate industries are increasingly bilingual.

“Most Latinos are like me, fluent in both (Spanish) and English, but many older ones feel comfortable doing business in their own language,” he said.

“When you’re dealing with a mortgage company and you’re signing your life away for 30 years, you want to make sure you know the jargon and the language. The health care industry is getting it (too), and saying, ‘we need to provide that service.’”

Gonzalez advises organizations to hire a professional language service that knows what it’s doing, versus using Google or some other online translation program. Those online translators might capture the literal words, but not always the meaning or explanation.

“Language is one of the biggest barriers right now,” he said. “Honestly, that’s the reason the Hispanic chamber was created. Most of them are first-time immigrants. They’ve been in this country like five years. They know the English language, but not enough to work through documents and permits.”

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