Custom Workplace English Instruction

September 18, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Since 1986, the Kent County Literacy Council has been helping functionally illiterate adults within KentCounty improve their reading skills.

But early in this century — through customized language programs — it began boosting area immigrant workers' safety and productivity, and to solidify their place in their new country.

By way of background, the council noted a new pattern in the demand for its services. More and more requests for help came from people for whom English is a second language.

In fact, the demand for such a program was growing so rapidly within the local business community that it led to the 2001 formation of the Customized Workplace English Program.

"I'll sit down with these companies when I first meet with them," explained Glenn Mathes, the program director, "and they'll list off for 10 minutes all the problems these employees have, and eventually I'll stop them and ask 'Why do you keep them?' And then the attitudes completely change: 'Well, they're great employees. They just can't communicate with their supervisors.'"

Like many manufacturers in the area, Lacks Enterprises Inc. has a substantial number of employees for whom English is not their first language.

Lacks works with local religious organizations in the placement of refugees, and selects workers from within local ethnic and immigrant populations. Those employees come from Sudan, Vietnam, China, Bosnia, Serbia, the Middle East, Mexico and Central and South America among other locales.

"It's great for our organization," said Joe Singer, Lacks' director of training.

"We love the diversity, and these people will typically come in here and work their butts off. The problem is that it creates certain communication problems on the plant floor."

Singer explained that management worries include those employees' level of understanding of safety-related matters, the ability to read and interpret the operating instruction material, and training issues — including those concerning quality certifications.

In the past Lacks had used federally funded programs available through the Grand RapidsPublic Schools and Kentwood Community Public Education. But when cutbacks began to limit that option, Singer said he began seeking a new provider.

At that time, the council was launching its new program, with an angle that proved to be particularly to the liking of the 1,900-employee manufacturer. At the heart of the council's fee-based program was an insistence on customizing the class to the needs of the employer.

Before classes began at Lacks, the instructors spent weeks customizing lesson plans, packing the classroom material with Lacks documents, Lacks terminology, Lacks signage, Lacks procedures and even photographs of the plant floor.

"They included things that people could really relate to out on the floor," Singer said. "And the kind of techniques they use in the classroom were very effective at keeping people engaged and involved."

He said the training is also unique in the way the classes are taught. Earlier, the people teaching English as a second language conducted classes with all the levels of competence clumped together.

"There would be this low-level buzz in the classroom," Singer recalled. "What we think was happening is that the students who were more proficient were explaining what was going on to those who were less proficient."

Now, however, Lacks' employees are assessed in and grouped according to skill.

On top of that, the instructors use methodology developed by DartmouthCollege for the Peace Corps. In a traditional language class, a student would be expected to average four responses per hour. The Dartmouth method requires students to produce over 65 responses.

"They have to be paying attention all the time," Singer said. "The classroom activities are very intense. They have to respond quickly and respond right now. They are on (the edges of) their seats the whole time, because they don't want to be called on and look dumb."

The council's program graduates employees when they can communicate confidently within the workplace. This allows more of the work force to take advantage of the program, and limits the employer's cost for the training and the loss of that employee's time on the floor.

"We're beginning to get comment back from our managers on the floor," Singer said.

"They are definitely seeing a difference in how these folks deal with the language … I have to admit that we're selfish about this. We're paying for it and we're looking for the outcome on the floor.

"The kind of skills they are learning in terms of pronunciation, interpretation, basic grammar and syntax, spelling and writing, carrying on a conversation — these all translate directly to private life, but where we want to see results is in their work life."

According to Mathes, the chief need for improved English is in the maintenance of quality certification. Lacks holds many certifications — QS9000, ISO9001, ISO14001, and ISO17025 — and the increased English proficiency of its foreign-born employees has alleviated communication problems that used to arise with certification auditors.

"We have all these qualifications going, and third-party auditors come in here frequently to make sure that we're still certified," Singer said.

"When (the auditors) come in now and talk to our people on the floor, we're finding that our non-English speakers are able to communicate better."

Bob Kurtz, human resources manager for the Gemtron Corp. plant in Holland, recently instituted the Literacy Council program for his employees as well.

Like Lacks, quality was one of his major concerns in doing so.

"(The language barrier) used to create a huge bottleneck," he said. "According to our ISO structure, we will have our work force — primarily new employees — trained in the appropriate work instructions for their area within two weeks. If you've got somebody who doesn't understand English and can't read and comprehend it, it's almost impossible to get them to the training point you want in two weeks."

Gemtron fears that if it were to put employees on the floor who weren't properly trained in quality and safety, the company would be in jeopardy of litigation and of putting out bad parts.

"I've noticed a great improvement already," Kurtz said.

"This will help make us more successful than we were in the past, not only from a dollar and cents viewpoint, but it will make our external customers happy with improved quality."

Kurtz elaborated on the quality issue by describing the necessity of printing ISO books and quality alerts in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

"I fought that tooth and nail," he said. "That creates a huge workload. This (training) is going to help us not have to do that and to ensure success for our employees."

This program is offered outside of KentCounty, as well.

The Literacy Council recently formed a partnership with Grand RapidsCommunity College and the Employers Association of West Michigan to provide the language training to those two institutions' business clients.

All of the instructors within the customized workplace program hold at least a master's degree in the teaching of English as a second language.    

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