How high-tech companies are dealing with the influx of foreign workers

With more than a third of its engineers foreign born and the global market beckoning, Silicon Valley is in the midst of its very own cross-cultural revolution.Increasingly, high-tech heavyweights such as Intel Corp.

With more than a third of its engineers foreign born and the global market beckoning, Silicon Valley is in the midst of its very own cross-cultural revolution.

Increasingly, high-tech heavyweights such as Intel Corp. (Nasdaq:INTC), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE:HWP), Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq:SUNW) and Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL) are turning to cross-cultural training and English second language courses in order to help foreign-born employees adapt to American work-life, as well as build multinational corporate cultures.

Of all the high-tech companies, Intel has one of the most impressive programs -- running a perpetual cross-cultural training program out of Chandler, Ariz.

"We are a 24-hour factory. We are 24-7," said Nancy Kenney, Intel's multicultural program manager.

As Kenney spoke, the Chandler campuses were training 70 Intel employees flown in from the company's Costa Rica assembly testing facility. "At all times there are people [undergoing cross-cultural training] from Costa Rica, Israel, Malaysia, the Philippines and Ireland," she said. Kenney said a key aim of training was to instill Intel's corporate culture and way of doing business.

After all, when you have a veritable United Nations of employees working in telecommuting teams, it helps if they have a common approach.

"Intel has its basic culture and values which everyone learns, whether they are in the United States or Costa Rica or Malaysia," she said.

'We are a 24-hour factory.'
-- Nancy Kenney, Intel multicultural training

For foreign workers coming to the United States, Intel's cross-cultural training covers everything from ESL (English as a second language) courses to lessons on driving, sexual harassment and how to work with Americans.

And what does the company expect in return? Increased productivity.

Kenney explained: "The faster you can get that person familiarized, up to speed, the better."

Cultural training is booming
Business has been on the upswing for intercultural training firms such as GeoNexus and Charis Intercultural for the past two years.

"ESL is doing very well as a result of this," said Lance Descourouez, GeoNexus' director of cross-cultural training and organizational development.

Descourouez said another of GeoNexus' clients, Hewlett-Packard, made cross-cultural training more than a corporate benefit. "They made it a corporate mandate, a policy," he said. "We were doing more cultural training because this was a corporate expectation."

Under the HP policy, all foreign-born employees were given the option to tackle crash courses on everything from the American school system and culture to the intricacies of verbal communications.

"As they expand globally, cross-cultural training becomes more important [to companies]," Descourouez said. "Companies are living in a number of countries at the same time."

Coming to America
Charis President Marian Stetson-Rodriguez said culture shock was not the biggest issue confronting foreign workers in the United States.

"People are coming, and they are not that naive. They are not that surprised," she said. "What they are not prepared for sometimes is the isolation in companies."

Many foreign workers, she said, expected their managers to ask them whether they need help, to be "looking out for them." Generally speaking, American employees tend to be more proactive -- telling their managers when they need help.

Some companies, Stetson-Rodriguez said, "don't see why anyone would have any trouble [adapting to America]. You have your 24-hour supermarket. Everyone's got a car. So what's the problem?"


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