Many U.S. employers are investing in English classes to upgrade immigrant workers ’ skills.
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Dec 31 15:36:28 UTC 2008
One Workforce—Many Languages
Many U.S. employers are investing in English classes to upgrade
immigrant workers' skills.
On a steamy July afternoon, Antonia Diaz makes her way to a worktable
in the bowels of a dusty construction pit outside Washington, D.C.,
and heaves a circular saw onto a plywood sheet. With her eyes fixed on
the wood, she painstakingly makes the first cut in her latest
project––construction of a handrail for a dangerous open stairwell her
co-workers use to move supplies. "My work makes it safe for everyone,"
she says in accented English. "Otherwise, someone could fall and break
a foot or a leg. I'm so proud of what I do."
It's a claim she could not have made five years ago, when she
immigrated to the United States from Honduras speaking only Spanish
and not knowing a miter box from a whipsaw. Diaz, a brawny one-time
truck driver, landed a job as a laborer at Miller & Long, a Maryland
construction company, shortly after arriving in the country. Within a
few weeks, she began attending free English classes that the company
offered to its mostly Spanish-speaking workers on Saturdays. She also
entered Miller & Long's carpentry apprenticeship, where she was
required to study textbooks and other technical materials available
only in English. ›
"The teacher would say, 'I'm sorry, guys, but this is the U.S. and we
speak English,' " she recalls. Three years later, her studies paid
off. She passed her carpentry certification exam––offered only in
English––and was promoted to Miller & Long's safety team at nearly
twice her starting salary. She began dating a co-worker who only
speaks English. The couple is now raising their 2-year-old daughter.
Contemporary Tower of Babel?
Diaz's experience contrasts sharply with the original Bible story of
Babel, where a chaotic mix of languages was mankind's punishment for
attempting to build a tower to heaven. The ancient parable is mostly
about arrogance. But viewed in the context of the diverse U.S.
workforce, the story takes on contemporary significance. Today,
foreign-born workers make up nearly 16 percent of the domestic labor
force––a proportion demographers predict will increase as the number
of U.S.-born workers decreases and immigration continues.
Not surprisingly, growth in the foreign-born population has gone
hand-in-hand with growing diversity of languages. The number of people
living in the United States who spoke a language other than English at
home grew by 38 percent in the 1980s and by 47 percent in the 1990s,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While the general population age
5 and older grew by one-fourth from 1980 to 2000, the number who spoke
a language other than English at home more than doubled.
Demographic changes in the workforce reflect the immigration boom.
"Just to fill positions and have growth, employers are relying more
heavily on the non-English-speaking labor force," says Jerry Rubin,
president and chief executive officer of Jewish Vocational Services
(JVS), a Boston-based nonprofit that offers English language classes
as part of its job training services. English classes for immigrants
once were the province of public schools, local government and
humanitarian agencies. Now, faced with a Babel of languages on shop
floors and construction sites, in hotels and restaurants, and in other
low-wage workplaces, many employers say providing English language
training to their workers has become a strategic imperative. "You
don't need English to work at Miller & Long," says Myles Gladstone,
the company's vice president of human resources, who is fluent in
English and Spanish. "But you do need English to get ahead."
Developing a Working Vocabulary
Accident prevention was an early driver for workplace English
programs, says Timmy Westfall, director of a workplace English program
that Indiana's Department of Education launched in the 1990s after
several Spanish-speaking workers in the state were seriously hurt or
killed on construction sites and in factories. But interest in such
programs now spans most industries, not just those with historically
high injury rates. Some companies rely on English for Speakers of
Other Languages (ESOL) programs, also known as English as a Second
Language (ESL) programs, to improve workers' understanding of basic
workplace rules, such as the need to call in an unscheduled
absence. Others offer classes as an employee benefit to lure
high-potential new workers or, at a minimum, to help ensure that their
current workers understand their pay and benefits.
In restaurants, growing demand for ESOL training stems, in part, from
several high-profile outbreaks of food poisoning. Widespread
complaints about slow drive-through times and goofed orders spur
interest. "Customers go crazy when workers can't speak English," says
Gerald Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice and
Hospitality Alliance, a Providence, R.I.-based industry group that
trains restaurant workers and managers.
Restaurant owners also link the language gap to restaurant
waste––death for businesses with narrow profit margins. "If you ask
for your burger with mustard and you get it with mayonnaise, then the
restaurant has to throw it out," Fernandez adds.
At some hospitals, boosting workers' English skills is key to meeting
future health care needs. Human resource professionals at Hebrew
Rehabilitation Center, a 725-bed facility in Boston's Roslindale
neighborhood, for instance, set aside funds to turn its mostly Russian
and Haitian cadre of nurses' aides into desperately needed, and more
highly paid, licensed practical nurses. But they shifted most of the
funds to English classes because most of the aides lacked the
requisite English skills to enter college nursing programs.
"We realized there was a greater need for the ESOL piece," says Susan
Natale, the hospital's career development manager.
Employers Put on a Class Act
Today, employers are taking a variety of approaches to teach their
Subsidized and discounted ESOL classes are available to many companies
through state adult education and local workforce development
agencies. (For information about contacting these resources, see the
online version of this article at www.shrm.org/hrmagazine for a
sidebar on starting an English program.)
Are English Classes a Good Fit for Your Business?
Employers interviewed by HR Magazine identified many reasons they
invest in English language programs. Among the most common:
Improve compliance with safety and other policies.
Boost worker productivity by improving comprehension.
Ensure that workers understand pay and benefits.
Improve customer service and prevent waste resulting from worker error.
Enhance communication and relationships among workers and managers.
Improve recruitment and retention.
Help low-wage workers improve earning potential.
Plan for future workforce needs.
Disincentives to offering classes include:
Scant evidence of return on investment.
Lack of worker need or interest.
In Indiana, program developers work directly with individual Hoosier
businesses to design workplace-specific curricula built around
vocabulary and concepts workers use in their jobs. Employers must
agree to pay workers for class time and provide a classroom. Once
classes start, employers are encouraged to attend advisory group
meetings with teachers, state evaluators and participating employees
to resolve problems that could hamper the programs' success.
Companies pay the state about $735 per student per series and, at the
end of a 60-hour training series, receive group progress reports.
Individual scores are not shared with employers, but internal audits,
a mandatory component of the state program, show some students
advancing by a grade or two after 60 hours, Westfall reports.
Hebrew Rehabilitation hired the nonprofit JVS to manage its ESOL
program––after being wowed by its reputation among other Boston
employers and the high caliber of its instructors, Natale says.
The hospital offers beginning English classes to all workers,
including those not directly involved in patient care. These beginning
classes focus on customer service vocabulary, while advanced courses
home in on reading and writing. During a recent class, students were
asked to write about their experiences caring for patients and to
practice their speaking skills by discussing medical ethics.
"We most definitely run a very serious, academic-type program with the
goal of getting employees to college-level readiness," says Natale,
noting that the hospital is budgeting about $2,000 per employee per
year for English classes.
It's too early to judge results at Hebrew Rehabilitation, but early
indicators are encouraging: Most of the 50 hospital employees who
started the ESOL program in 2006 have stuck with it, and several began
nursing studies last fall
As a bonus, ESOL classes generate buzz among job seekers and may help
with recruitment in a fiercely competitive market for workers.
"In the Boston area, it is extremely difficult to find free English
classes," says Natale, who frequently receives calls from job seekers
asking about the program.
Michelle Crabtree, human resource director for Hyatt Regency in
Arlington, Va., receives vouchers from Arlington County that allow
workers to attend a 10-week series of evening English classes for
$35––about one-tenth the tuition elsewhere, she says. Employees pay
the fee upfront and get reimbursed by the hotel if they complete the
Making it to English classes after working a full shift wasn't always
easy, concedes Ana Ramirez, a Salvadoran who studied English on
Hyatt's dime throughout the 1990s. Her hectic schedule forced her to
stop and start classes several times, but she was promoted from maid
to housekeeping supervisor once she learned English.
"Now, I tell my employees to go to school," she says. "If you are
interested in taking classes, you make it happen."
Some employers are launching ESOL programs without direct government
assistance. The costs are deductible as business expenses, as with
Gladstone of Miller & Long, for instance, enlisted several HR staffers
to teach English classes on Saturdays, supplementing lessons with
textbooks the company buys for about $35 each.
Civil rights and management groups––often at odds over the treatment
of low-wage workers––are both lauding Maryland-based Marriott
International for its $500,000, two-year investment in portable,
computerized recording devices to help Spanish-speaking workers learn
English at home. So far, the program appears to be popular; about
1,400 employees have borrowed the tools, marketed under the name Sed
de Saber—Spanish for "thirst for knowledge."
Earlier this year, McDonald's presented a series of 26 90-minute
English classes to about 100 restaurant managers and plans to expand
the program soon, a spokeswoman said.
But not all ESOL methods work in all settings. Officials of the
National Restaurant Association had high hopes for a structured
program where restaurant workers met daily for 10 to 15 minutes to
practice their English and learn words. But it discontinued its pilot
because employees weren't progressing and managers had difficulty
finding space for the groups to meet, a spokeswoman says.
Even more costly traditional programs have had mixed results.
Marriott switched to the take-home devices because many employees work
two or more jobs and say they don't have time to sit in class,
according to David Rodriguez, the company's executive vice president
for global HR. Hyatt hired instructors to teach English classes at
some of its hotels but discontinued them because of employees' low
interest and irregular attendance.
Tolerance and Intolerance
Despite growing popularity, employer-provided ESOL classes are rare.
Only about 10 percent of employers responding to Society for Human
Resource Management (SHRM) studies in each of the last two years said
they offered ESOL classes as a benefit. Last summer, 24 percent of
respondents to a SHRM online survey said they cover some or all of the
costs associated with English classes.
But some employers have grown impatient with non-English speakers.
Last year, Kenneth Cuccinelli, a conservative state senator in
Fairfax, Va., unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that would have
allowed companies to fire workers who don't speak English on the job
and would have exempted businesses from paying unemployment benefits
to workers let go in such cases. Cuccinelli said he wanted to protect
employers from workers who renege on a promise to learn English once
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) discourages
employers from requiring workers to speak English on the job and warns
that such policies could be grounds for national origin lawsuits.
Nevertheless, the number of employee English-only discrimination
claims filed with the EEOC has increased nearly every year since 1996.
In fiscal 2007, the agency received 190 English-only complaints from
workers, a tiny fraction of its cases, but six times the number of
such complaints filed a decade earlier.
The EEOC's restrictive view on the legality of workplace English-only
policies has become a political lightning rod, pitting civil rights
advocates against some businesses. In 2007, the Senate voted to shift
$700,000 in anti-discrimination enforcement funds to another agency
after the EEOC charged the Salvation Army with national origin
discrimination for firing two of its thrift store workers because they
didn't speak English. Last November, nearly three years after the
workers were let go, EEOC lawyers agreed to drop the charges. In
return, the Salvation
Army promised to soften its policy and now requires "effective"
English skills, rather than English language fluency.
The settlement doesn't include a remedy for the workers. Yet it
remains consistent with the EEOC's main goal in such cases, according
to Elizabeth Grossman, the EEOC's attorney in the case. "In some
cases, tweaking the [policy] may make all the difference in the
world," she says.
Employees who prefer to speak languages other than English at work
have not been a problem for Art.com, an online framing and art
supplier in Columbus, Ohio, says the company's HR manager, Daryl
But he has been driven to find creative solutions for managing a
recent influx of workers from the East African nation of Somalia, some
of whom speak only the national language, Somali.
Mostly, the company relies on a handful of longtime bilingual
employees whom managers and the non-English speakers trust.
The ad hoc translators were essential in helping company officials
understand the workers' unfamiliar Muslim customs and accommodate
them, Neville says. Since the workers pray several times a day, for
instance, the company sets aside space for a prayer room and installed
special sinks where employees wash their feet—an essential part of the
When the company distributed an employee survey earlier this year, the
bilingual workers were asked to help the non-English speakers complete
So far, the informal system appears to be working––at least no one has
"These folks are very good employees," Neville said. "So we're happy
to have them."
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