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Bilingual Skills Key to Surviving the Recession

Hispanic Business, News Report, Rob Kuznia Posted: Feb 10, 2009

With the unemployment rate of the Hispanic population in the United States nearing 10 percent, now is the time to start thinking about sectors that are defying the dismal trends.

Carlos Sanchez, a manager with the Hispanic-bilingual job site Saludos.com, said even though this is the worst economy he has seen in 40 years, there are a few bright spots.

But finding them, he adds, might take some sacrifice on the part of job seekers.

"There are amazing opportunities out there for people who have skill sets and tools," he said. "Especially bilingual people. . . . But people have to look for these opportunities. You can't put your head in the sand and feel sorry for yourself."

To be sure, Sanchez acknowledges that the present outlook is bleak -- an assessment that is reflected by the shrinking number of ads on the site he manages. Over the past year, the count has dropped from about 300 to 200, he said.

Sanchez says that right now, despite the sinking economy, there is a need for bilingual courtroom interpreters, who help non-English-speaking defendants, witnesses and litigants communicate in American courtrooms.

"Here's an opportunity where somebody could make $300 a day," he said.

Sanchez said he is also seeing openings for paralegals, social workers and nurses -- especially at Veteran-Administration hospitals. Curiously, there are also openings at the FBI and CIA, he added.

What's more, he said, passage of the stimulus package being haggled over in Congress -- now tagged at $838 billion -- would open up many jobs in construction. But these jobs are best suited for the young, Sanchez said.

"A guy who's 60 years old isn't going to want to be out on the highway," he said. "But for many people under 40, this is a marvelous opportunity. And if you're a minority-owned business, and there are more government contracts, there is an unwritten mandate to spread the wealth."

However, "recession-friendly" is a relative term, and given the dour state of the economy, virtually no sector of employment seems to have a surplus of openings.

In the courtroom-interpreter field, for instance, while industry experts say there is indeed a shortage of talented courtroom interpreters -- especially in states such as California -- there's also a shortage of money to pay the talent. In other words, many states aren't hiring full-timers, period. But they are hiring independent contractors, said Monica Mangaser of the Southern California School of Interpretation, based in the Los Angeles area.

"In Los Angeles County, there are 30 to 40 cases postponed daily because of the lack of interpreters," said Mangaser, an executive administrative assistant at the 15-year-old school. "There's always a need for interpreters; that's never going to go away. It's not a job market that's going to kind of diminish, like retail."

The job is highly rigorous, demanding much more than mere bilingual proficiency. Marketable courtroom interpreters must demonstrate a mastery of legal jargon in both languages, for instance.

"The analogy we use is that of a concert pianist," said Holly Mikkelson, a professor at the graduate school of translation and interpretation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Everybody's got 10 fingers, and a lot of people can play the piano, but they are not all concert pianists."

The good news is that those willing to invest the time and energy it takes to learn the trade will likely have a leg up in an economy that some experts fear could remain slow for years.

In nursing, the situation is often similar: Even if jobs aren't exactly falling from the sky, now might be a good time to begin training.

In Sacramento, for example, the shortage of nurses five years ago had reached epidemic proportions. Schools in the area could graduate no more than 260 people into the profession every year, but hospitals in the area were short 1,000.

To ratchet up the number of graduates, the Los Rios Community College District teamed up with the Sutter Health System. Now, almost every opening has been filled. But it's largely an illusion. Monica Small, director of the Sutter Center for Health Professions, says the gloomy economy has spooked nurses who were eligible for retirement into sticking it out for a couple more years.

"The vacancy rate is very, very low, but it's the calm before the storm," she said. "We're going to see the Baby Boomers retiring in three or four years. Then, we're not going to be able to keep up."

Nursing schools include both two-year and four-year programs. Small said those who graduate with a four-year degree do not necessarily receive higher salaries than those with two-year degrees. All nursing students must pass the same licensing exam.

"This is a good time for people to start going to school to get their pre-requisites done," she said.

Small added that the Sutter Health System is actively trying to boost its number of Hispanic nurses. Although Hispanics make up 17 percent of the Sacramento-area population, they constitute just 9 percent that region's nurses. To close the disparity, the partnership between the hospital and the community colleges recently began advertising in Hispanic media outlets.

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