UW-River Falls

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Last updated:
May 31, 2002

Hispanic Workers Impact Increasing in Wisconsin

By Khrysten Darm
UW-RF News Bureau

A recent presentation by UW-River Falls dairy science Professor Dennis Cooper reflected a new reality in Wisconsin: 10 percent of its dairy workforce speaks Spanish.

Cooper spoke at a Hispanic Dairy Labor Conference recently in Kaukauna,Wis. His presentation was titled: "?Que Pasa? What is Happening with Hispanic Workers? Nine Ideas to Improve Your Success with Hispanic Employees."

Wisconsin is taking greater note of the importance of immigrant dairy workers, and institutions like UW-River Falls are responding. From June 17-28 it will offer Workforce English as a Second Language program. It provides basic training for tutors, who can then go out into the community or to a specific business to help workers learn basic survival English.

Cooper's presentation on Spanish-speaking workers was attended by 50 people, mostly dairy producers who employ Hispanic and Latino workers. Cooper's extension specialty is human resource management for dairy farmers. But with a dramatic increase of Hispanic workers in the dairy industry, his presentation now takes that into consideration.

"Instead of talking about local American farmers, the subject has changed to the management challenge of foreign workers, mainly from Mexico and Central America," he said.

Ten percent of the workforce in Wisconsin is Hispanic, and although a high concentration is in the southeastern part of the state, there are still Hispanic workers that come to larger dairy farms in this area.

"We are trying to serve dairy farmers and they need information on how to manage a multicultural workforce," Cooper said.

Cooper said language barriers are being overcome because of efforts to provide language training to both Wisconsin employers and Hispanic workers. Programs, such as Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, teaches Hispanic workers to understand and speak English. Community colleges and universities, such as UW-RF, offer Spanish instruction for dairy farmers, CD-ROM's, books and tapes are available, as well as classes for dairy producers to familiarize Hispanic workers with dairy terminology.

Cooper said that the biggest barrier in learning another language is the time commitment.

He strongly suggests that dairy farmers who employ Hispanic workers learn to speak Spanish, or have a manager learn the language to avoid the confusion that could arise when workers are doing the translating.

"It's an exciting challenge and potentially a culturally enriching one for both the dairy farmers and Hispanic workers," he said. "Both groups get to learn about another culture."

Katrina Larsen, program manager for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, and the assistant to the dean of Outreach and Graduate Studies, helps with the Workforce ESL program. The class will be offered this summer, starting June 17 and lasting until June 28. Next semester the class will be offered over the 10-week period, and also will be broadcast on interactive television and transmitted to areas where there are a large population of non-English speakers. The class can be taken for credit as an undergraduate, or a graduate, or there is a non-credit option.

This class resulted from requests by area dairy operators who had non-English speakers employed at their farms. Over time and with the success of the program, the Dairy Workers ESL Project has expanded to include other industries, such as horticulture, manufacturing and food processing industries.

"We want to make non-English speakers more comfortable in their communities," Larsen said. "They learn very basic English to help them get around in their communities and will be helpful to them at work."

Larsen also said that it is a very rewarding experience for all three groups that are involved in the process. The tutors are pleased to be helping people, businesses are enthused to have their workers have more English knowledge, and the workers are happy because they are more acclimated to their surroundings.

The Workplace ESL Program is a collaboration between the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, and the College of Arts and Sciences, which houses the TESOL program, University of Wisconsin System Extension and University Outreach.

Anyone interested in receiving more information about the workplace ESL program can call the department of Outreach and Graduate Studies at 715/425-3261, or visit their Web site at www.uwrf.edu/outreach.

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