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Western Michigan company turns to Spanish-speaking workers to ease labor shortage

ZEELAND, MI – Denise Navarro starts her day as most of the production group managers at Gentex Corporation, where she oversees around 25 second-shift workers who manufacture mirrors for the Zeeland-based automotive supplier.

But when she registers with her employees, there is a difference: the conversation is in Spanish.

“I think language shouldn’t be a barrier,” said Navarro, who is bilingual and part of Gentex’s new effort to recruit Spanish-speaking workers as it struggles to fill vacancies amid a shortage. labor force that has hurt businesses in Western Michigan.

Historically, Gentex has required employees to have a basic knowledge of the English language. But the company stepped down at the end of last year as it found itself with more than 400 vacant positions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The idea, says President and CEO Steve Downing, is to tap into a new pool of workers.

“What we knew was that we were running out of workers,” he said, “and we had to get creative to solve the problem.”

So what started late last year with four Spanish-speaking workers on a third-shift production line has turned into around 50 such employees working across multiple production lines and shifts, Downing said. Bilingual supervisors like Navarro are there to lend a hand.

To launch the initiative, Gentex translated and printed work instructions in Spanish and created training videos in Spanish. Employees who speak Spanish and English have been given the opportunity to take on supervisory positions, Downing said.

“We have proven that it works – now how do we evolve it,” he said. “Instead of 50 people, what are those 500 people like? This is sort of the process we are currently undergoing.

Gentex pays a starting wage of $ 15 an hour for first shift workers and recently increased its starting wage for second and third shift employees to $ 16 an hour.

But, in a job market where $ 15 an hour and more is increasingly common, Gentex says it’s trying to differentiate itself with other perks. The company, for example, recently began offering a $ 5,000 stock award to hourly employees with one year of service.

Gentex has approximately 5,300 employees.

“Why don’t we try to attract people who want to stay longer instead of just competing on a pure hourly basis,” said Downing, whose company now prints its newsletter in Spanish and displays ads in Spanish on televisions in the lobby of the company.

Inside Gentex’s Centennial Street factory, where machines roar as workers make auto-dimming mirrors and other electronics for the auto industry, Navarro walks past an assembly line she oversees .

The 26-year-old West Ottawa Public Schools graduate, who is now double-enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University, said she spent her shift answering employee questions, to have one-on-one conversations with workers and guide them through the production process. .

“A lot of my job will be just asking them how it’s going,” said Navarro, who has been with Gentex for five years. “Is there something they might be having trouble understanding.”

She says the company’s pressure to hire more Spanish-speaking workers is affecting near her home.

Her parents, Martin and Adriana, moved from Chicago to West Michigan when she was 11. And because they were having trouble with English, they couldn’t find a job in a place like Gentex, she said.

“My parents would have liked to apply here, but due to their limited English they couldn’t do it,” said Navarro, whose parents are in their mid-fifties. “Now they are even thinking of coming. “

The Spanish-speaking program is bringing new workers to Gentex, a publicly traded company that started in 1974. But the company still has a long way to go before its labor shortage is resolved, Downing said. .

“We are still missing 400 to 450 people from where we want to be,” he said. “Ironically, it’s very similar to the number of people we lost during the pandemic who kind of left the workforce.”

To attract Spanish-speaking workers, the company has placed notice boards in Spanish throughout western Michigan. Company officials have also sponsored and attended events such as the Grand Rapids Hispanic Festival, where Navarro discussed with attendees the opportunities within the company.

The company also hopes that employees will lend a hand in the recruiting effort.

“We do our best to recruit when employees recruit friends, family and people they know and recommend it as a place to work,” said Downing. “Obviously we do billboards and other campaigns. But what we really hope is that people recruit their friends and family because they tend to have longevity. “

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Erica Gill

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