Soon after he arrived at the upscale Wegmans Food Markets store in Dulles last year, executive chef Llewellyn Correia discovered that many of the 120 employees he supervised had not been attending the company's mandatory safety and sanitation classes.
The reason, he said: "The courses were in English, and many of my employees don't speak English."
Correia said some of his Asian cooks needed training in U.S. food handling standards, which are more rigorous than the ones in their home countries and more likely to be enforced by government inspectors. "It's very hard to break old habits," he said.
The lack of training, he said, also was raising safety issues among some employees who were posing a danger to themselves and their co-workers. "We had lots of issues like slips and falls," he said.
Today, the Dulles Wegmans offers a Web-based version of its safety and sanitation courses in Mandarin and Spanish, in addition to English -- just one nod the supermarket says it is making to a multilingual workplace in which more than 200 of its 650 employees do not speak English as their primary language.
In a region with one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates, managers at large retailers such as the Dulles Wegmans say hiring immigrant workers makes good business sense, filling low-paying jobs that many U.S.-born workers don't want with employees motivated to move up through the ranks as they learn the language. With English speakers, "You train somebody and -- boom -- they leave. You lose a lot of money actually training people," Correia said.
Having a polyglot workforce can also boost sales and build loyalty among non-English-speaking customers who can ask a question -- Are the Pepsi 12-packs still on sale? -- in their native tongues.
But it also means grappling with such management challenges as how to ensure that a miscommunication does not lead to an accident or regulatory violation, give orders to employees who speak far better Tagalog than English, or help people who once lived two oceans apart work together behind the same deli counter.
"Sometimes it's tough. You know, the one-on-one communication, getting your point across," Mike Provo, a Dulles Wegmans manager, said as he surveyed a row of cashiers whose first languages were Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu. "It takes a little bit more time and a little bit more effort and patience."
Numbers released Dec. 1 by the Virginia Employment Commission help explain why large retailers are snapping up workers who speak virtually no English.
The unemployment rate fell to 1.9 percent in Loudoun County, home to the Dulles Wegmans, and 2.3 percent in Northern Virginia, according to the commission's most recent data, for October. In the world of employment, anything below 2 percent is considered a worker shortage. The Washington region tied Minneapolis-St. Paul for the lowest employment rate -- 3.1 percent -- among the nation's 367 metropolitan areas.
With fewer people looking for work, non-English speakers are in more demand, said economist Stephen S. Fuller, who tracks employment trends as director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.
"Employers are having to dig deeper into the labor pool," he said.
Minorities accounted for two-thirds of the region's population growth from 2000 to 2003, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures. And the rate of minority growth in Loudoun County, Prince William County, Charles County and Manassas and Manassas Park ranked in the top dozen nationally from 2000 to 2004.
"Immigrants represent almost half of all of our new population growth right now," Fuller said. "One theory why they come here is that immigrants go where other immigrants go. They say 'Come on over. This is good.' "
"They also go where there are jobs," he said. "But equally important is that in just about every country in the world the nation's capital is the most important city. So if you're going to pick a place you're likely to think of Washington before San Antonio or Kansas City."
The challenges of managing a multicultural workforce have spawned a cottage industry of outside consultants, in-house specialists, book and magazine publishers, and others.
Wegmans has retained language instructors for its Dulles and Fairfax stores to teach their employees a bit more English and their managers un poco Espanol.
"The English class was important to me because . . . " entry-level cook Rosa Martinez, a Honduran immigrant, said on a recent afternoon. She paused to consider how to finish the sentence in English, then continued with a smile: "Porque necesito ingles en mi trabajo" -- because I need English in my job.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has started an "Office of Diversity" that holds regular seminars to "instill in all managers a better understanding of the different cultures," the company says.
"It's almost like working at the U.N. here now," said Dempsey D. Bell, co-manager of the Wal-Mart in Sterling, where 32 languages are spoken by the store's employees. "The diversity is great for us because our customers are becoming more diverse and, if they need some help in the store, we can usually find an employee who speaks their language."
A New Jersey company called DiversityInc Media LLC sells training videos, a 539-page how-to manual and a glossy magazine named DiversityInc. Consultants such as Ivy Planning Group LLC of Rockville offer seminars on how to build, manage and make money with a diverse workforce.
"We tell companies: Most of your work is around driving revenue and remaining profitable, and if you are going to remain profitable and serve customers, we've got to figure this thing out," said Ivy's president, Janet Crenshaw Smith, whose clients have included Pepco, Hilton Hotels and Lockheed Martin.
Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans has been struggling with the puzzle since it opened in Northern Virginia, in Dulles last year and Fairfax this year.
At the Dulles store, managers often rely on interpreters -- usually bilingual managers -- to assist with job interviews and employee training and counseling sessions.
When bilingual managers can't be found, relatives of the employees and job seekers are pressed into service. "That's not ideal," said human resources representative Sarah Resch. "Sometimes you get the feeling that the translator, not the employee, is answering the question."
Some retailers also use non-management employees to relay management orders to their co-workers. "If the boss wants to say something to a worker who doesn't speak English, she'll come to me," and Andre Wye, a multilingual cashier at the supermarket in McLean known as the International Safeway. "For example, the boss once wanted the bathrooms cleaned but the worker just spoke Spanish. So I had to tell him 'El bano esta cochino' " -- the bathroom is filthy.
Born in the coastal Indian city of Goa and raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Wegmans executive chef Correia speaks a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese and is fluent in Hindi, Kiswahili, Konkani (spoken around Goa) and, of course, English.
"I've traveled the world and I understand people's ethnicity and how they react to things," Correia said as lunch-hour customers eyed his Ultimate Crab Cakes ($9.99 each) and chicken Francaise ($11.99 a pound). "They're all very different, and how we approach them is different."
One of his latest hires is immigrant Sovjet Ndreu, 54, who moved to the United States from Albania in January to be close to his daughter in Leesburg.
Ndreu spoke barely a word of English when he walked into the 130,000-square-foot Dulles Wegmans one morning last May, looking a bit lost.
"I saw this man near the entrance and I said, 'What do you need?" said Ekrem Kosovic, a Bosnian immigrant who works on Wegmans' loading dock. "He didn't understand me, but then he said, 'Job, job, job.' I offered to help."
Kosovic headed to the kitchen, where he buttonholed Correia.
"I said, 'Llewellyn, there is a guy here who is looking for a job but he doesn't speak nothing,' " Kosovic said in heavily accented English. "Llewellyn said, 'Give me a little time. Maybe we'll have a job as a dishwasher.' "
Kosovic told Ndreu the hopeful news.
"But he didn't understand me," Kosovic said. "So he gave me his daughter's phone number and I called her."
A few days later, Ndreu was hired as a $10-an-hour dishwasher after an interview in which his daughter, Encela Lazeri, did the translating. Lazeri, a hair stylist, said her father has survived at Wegmans by "communicating any way he can."
"He makes signs with his hands. He writes things down. He says one word and tries to make people understand the other words he wants to say," she said.
This summer, Ndreu took a second job -- part-time, for $8.75 an hour, at the Wal-Mart in Leesburg -- and he recently assumed new duties at Wegmans.
"His daughter had told me that his goal is to get out of the dish room, so I started him in the cold room, [where] he labels salads and sandwiches," Correia said. "It seems like the job in the cold room is working out for him."
Ndreu plans to enroll in Wegmans' next English class and, every so often, he tries to impress his boss with the new words he has been picking up.
"The other day, he came back here and told me with the little English he has: 'My family appreciates this,' " Correia said. "Of course, he was talking about his job."
Cheung Wong is the wok chef at Wegmans in Dulles. More than 200 of the Dulles Wegmans' 650 employees do not speak English as their primary language.