Last year, Shelly Eureste had a language barrier to cross.
About 75 percent of the employees at the Jessup-based produce companies where she worked as head of human resources spoke Spanish. She and most of the management spoke only English.
When L&M; Produce turned to Howard Community College for help, the college had only introductory conversational Spanish courses - nothing to help the company communicate with employees about benefits, policies or crates of snow peas.
That has changed.
The continuing education and work force development division of the college has a new series of occupational Spanish courses designed for specific industries to help managers and employees get their messages across to Spanish-speaking co-workers and clients.
The college is offering a continuing open-enrollment course for managers and travelers, and targeting the business community and government agencies in Howard County to conduct private courses by contract.
"We're going to go into hospitals with the nursing staff, the hospitality industry, restaurants," said Marjorie Cangiano, a course developer with the college.
Cangiano and Sara Baum, another course developer, are training a crew of teachers in Command Spanish, a basic language course that teaches 50 generic phrases and narrow questions and answers geared toward specific industries and occupations.
Cangiano and Baum were certified last fall by Mississippi-based Command Spanish Inc. and brought back a lengthy list of industries and courses the community college can offer to companies with a concentration of Hispanic workers.
The first course - a generic class for anyone supervising Spanish-speaking employees - will begin Feb. 26.
"We've realized a need. People have asked us about this kind of training," Baum said.
"We feel very strongly that this is one more way for us to develop the community service we have and make a link to businesses," she said.
In Howard County, the Hispanic population has more than doubled in the past 10 years. Census figures from 2000 show there were 7,490 Hispanic residents in the county that year, compared with 3,699 in 1990.
Many local businesses, such as L&M; Produce, have seen the number of their Spanish-speaking employees grow, in some cases creating communications difficulties.
Eureste took a Spanish course in the fall from the community college, along with about a dozen managers and salesmen from her company, but she still needed to hire a bilingual assistant.
Students in Command Spanish don't learn the grammar and verb conjugations that are typically associated with language courses, but they do learn how to communicate with a co-worker about job orientation, safety and medical issues, and hiring and dismissal - things a grammar course would not teach.
For example, a course for firefighters might teach rescue workers how to ask if anyone is in a building and where the people are; nurses and paramedics would learn how to ask where it hurts, and police might learn instructions to give when making a simple arrest.
Students learn the phrases by memorization and frequent repetition. Much of the message is communicated through body language and tone of voice, Cangiano said.
The courses are designed to give employers basic tools to use in 12 to 30 hours of classwork, and local agencies seem excited about having it.
In the month since the college announced the program, it has fielded questions from the Sheriff's Department, Police Department and a landscaping company, Cangiano said.
The college also plans to offer a course for travelers in the spring.
Although the course does not cover everything, it does help fill in the communications gaps, Baum said.
"It's not that the people in the jobs won't learn English, but the need of the moment is to communicate until the next step takes place," she said.