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Accent on Work

Coming off the worst downturn in its history, Lexicon Marketing Corp. decided to add something to its series of correspondence classes for Spanish-speaking Latinos.

The bilingual courses would no longer just be for learning English, but for career training.

For a generation, the company had made the ads for its flagship product Ingles sin Barreras (English Without Obstacles) a constant presence on Spanish-language TV. And until 2006, sales of the at-home English course continued to grow. But sales fell dramatically last year as a downturn in the construction industry, where about a third of its customers work, caused some Latinos to curtail spending. The unresolved issue of U.S. immigration reform legislation didn’t help, either. Lexicon fired about 25 percent of its work force.

In response to the market, L.A.-based Lexicon launched Profesiones sin Barreras (Professions Without Obstacles) with a bilingual curriculum of books and DVDs offering four careers: medical office assistant, construction, sales or entrepreneurship.

“Despite the talk about Hispanics taking jobs from Americans, these are industries looking for people,” said Karissa Price, vice president for growth initiatives at Lexicon. “For example, health is a high growth sector that has been hurting for people for some time. And since the launch, the highest numbers have been for the medical career.”

Profesiones sin Barreras will address what the company calls a significant educational problem in the U.S. by offering career training to two categories who need it: the roughly 2 million Hispanic youths who are high school dropouts in addition to the millions of Hispanic adults in the work force who lack the skills to apply for the jobs most in demand.

Mara Klug, regional vice president for Adecco USA Inc., a temporary placement firm in Torrance, said Lexicon’s Profesiones training can help job seekers in the targeted fields.

“A lot of our customers hire people we have resourced from vocational schools, especially if they are going to start as temporary labor,” she said. “In medical billing, a lot of the job is coding and typing, so attention to detail and typing skills are more important than the ability to actually read and write English.”

The courses range in price from $1,000 to $1,500, and require about 100 hours to complete. Like most correspondence courses, they are self-paced, so the timeline varies from three months to a year.

“Profesiones is the only bilingual course out there,” Price said. “You’ll see other vocational schools advertising in Spanish, but their courses are in English.”

Lexicon sells Profesiones with the same method it perfected for its English classes. The process begins with TV ads; according to estimates by Hispanic Business magazine, Lexicon spent about $146 million on direct-response TV ads last year.

Customers call in their orders to telephone centers in Los Angeles; Tijuana, Mexico; and Lima, Peru. Most customers can’t afford to pay for the product immediately so Lexicon accepts a down payment and extends them credit, which carries a double bonus for the buyer.

“For many customers, this is truly their first opportunity to establish credit in this country,” Price said.


Risky issues

Vocational training for Spanish speakers raises some risky issues for students and Lexicon. Price concedes that many critics have asked: If a person doesn’t have enough English skills to take a class, how could she get a job as a medical receptionist?

“In order for students to be successful they need requisite math, reading and writing skills,” said Farley Herzek, dean of the School of Trades & Industrial Technology at Long Beach City College. “Students coming in without those skills will have a tough time persisting in the program, whether English is their second language or not.”

Price said it’s about the learner’s level of comfort.

“There are people who can speak English well enough to get the job, but they would prefer to learn in Spanish because it’s their native language.”

Herzek also noted that attendance in a classroom gives students social support, a key motivation that’s difficult to duplicate in distance learning courses. Although Lexicon has bilingual teachers and advisers, “students have to be highly motivated, independent learners to succeed in that environment.”

Lexicon started in 1974 when Jose Luis Nazar, a Chilean immigrant to Miami, saw the need to teach English in an informal, self-paced way. Nazar moved the company to Los Angeles in 1985 and then sold it to Golden Gate Capital, a private equity firm, in late 2002.

The new owners immediately began to leverage its assets by selling different products using the same salespeople. Success came from Disney’s World of English, a children’s literacy course; a cookware set; Computacion sin Barreras, a computing course sold with a computer; and Seguros sin Barreras, a series of insurance products.

But those products paled next to the complexity of Profesiones. According to Price, Lexicon had to invest heavily to write the curriculum in two languages and then had to set up a school, complete with faculty, grading processes and approval from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, which was necessary because a company subsidiary is based there.

Herzek believes good timing will help the launch of Profesiones, since participation in vocational training increases during economic slowdowns. Also, construction, the sector that employs a high number of Latinos, needs skilled workers to build infrastructure projects and public works, notwithstanding the slump on the residential side of the industry.

So far, Lexicon has stuck with selling correspondence class with DVDs and booklets, thus avoiding the trend toward online learning. But its delivery method may change with its next product.

“Our research shows the majority of our market doesn’t have a computer and aren’t online,” Price explained. “Later we plan to introduce a GED class that will launch online because it has a different consumer, younger and much more likely to have a computer and be online.”

Lexicon Marketing Corp.

Founded: 1974

Core Business: Educational DVDs and courses for native Spanish-speakers

Employees in 2008: 1,500

Employees in 2007: 1,100

Goal: To use existing sales force to sell more products to U.S. Latinos

Driving Force: Need for skilled workers in high growth sectors

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