In A Class By Itself

November 12, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Effective communication with new hires on the factory floor is essential for safety and efficient production, but the typical American factory often has its own mysterious jargon peculiar to that company and its industrial processes.

Communication is even more challenging when some of the new employees can barely understand English.

The Kent County Literacy Council, a nonprofit organization, has a solution for employers: Customized Workplace English — English taught in the place of business, in words employees use on the job.

Display Pack, an $80 million manufacturing and printing company located on Monroe Avenue in northwest Grand Rapids, launched such a program this year. The program’s several levels of instruction make it among the most comprehensive Customized Workplace English programs in West Michigan, with a high percentage of employee participation.

"We saw this as a great opportunity to invest in our people," said Jim Woodcock, director of strategic initiatives at Display Pack.

Founded by Roger Hansen working out of his garage in 1967, Display Pack Inc. today is a major producer of plastic in-mold applications for the automotive industry and also makes product packaging for a wide range of industries that include automotive, electronics, household products, bath and beauty, pharmaceutical, food and consumer goods. The company has more than 500 full- and part-time employees, and about 20 percent to 25 percent of them are immigrants to the United States, mostly from Mexico and other Latin American countries, but also some from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Last May, more than 40 Display Pack employees voluntarily began to study English — customized for Display Pack — at the plant, on their own time, in 90-minute, twice a week classes at the end of their shifts. The students will "graduate" in November: They'll have certificates proving they have a better grip on the English language, and Display Pack will have more valuable employees with greater abilities and more opportunities for advancement.

"It's a win-win," said Woodcock.

Instructors are provided by the literacy council and each holds a master's degree in teaching English as a second language. It is an "immersion" course: Only English is spoken in the class.

Kristin Ekkens, director of the program, said more than 35 West Michigan organizations — mostly for-profit companies but also some nonprofit organizations — have enrolled employees in the classes since the program began in 2001. The companies range from Agape Plastics to Zondervan Publishing. Lacks Enterprises Inc., for example, has approximately 40 employees enrolled in two classes that have run continuously for about the last four years, said Ekkens.

According to Ekkens, Display Pack has the largest variety of CWE classes offered by one employer at one time: five levels of English instruction, ranging from low beginner to advanced reading and writing.

Scheduling is a challenge, said Ekkens. Some employers only want one class, scheduled at a time when the largest number of employees can attend. But Display Pack "is willing to accommodate all shifts" with classes at different times of the day, said Ekkens.

The employer pays a fee for the classes, depending on how many employees are enrolled, how many types of classes there are, and the degree of customization the company wants in its classes. A company enrolling 20 employees for 30 hours of instruction in basic workplace English over a 10-week period would pay about $5,000. If the company wants that same course material highly customized to its own circumstances, the cost could be about $8,000.

The Kent County Literacy Council also offers one-on-one English instruction, and even "pronunciation improvement and accent reduction," according to its literature. Those focused, one-on-one services can be geared toward doctors or other highly educated individuals who may have learned English in their native countries, but need practice once they get here.

"We work in a lot of different industries," said Ekkens, in settings ranging from hospitals to factories.

In some cases, some CWE class sessions have actually been held in the factory production areas where the "students" work, so they can literally see the machines and processes they are talking about.

Persuading employees to voluntarily take a language class on their own time before or after work can be daunting, but there may be incentives available from the federal government through the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which is intended to "improve employment, training, literacy and vocational rehabilitation programs."

Some of the employees in the CWE classes at Display Pack qualified for Workforce Investment Act grants through the Area Community Services Employment & Training Council. The grants, based on need and income levels, among other factors, can be up to several hundred dollars per person and are only used for "support services" such as transportation costs, work uniforms and steel-toed shoes that help the individual overcome barriers to employment and/or training.

It also helps to have someone like Kate Buwalda to help persuade employees to sign up for classes.

"Kate has been our champion of this program. She's a natural communicator," said Woodcock.

Buwalda graduated from Aquinas College in 2005 with a dual major in business administration and Spanish. During her college years, she lived in Costa Rica for several months with a family who only spoke Spanish. Her fluency in Spanish has enabled her to build rapport with the Spanish-speaking employees at Display Pack since she started working there two years ago in training and employee development, which is referred to as “Display Pack University.” She was just promoted to human resources generalist.

Last January, Carlos Hidalgo, founder of Hidalgo & DeVries, a strategic marketing and research firm in Grand Rapids, spoke to groups of Display Pack employees about effective communication on the job and about his own experience as a bewildered young immigrant in the U.S. many years ago.

"He definitely inspired me and a lot of employees here at Display Pack," said Buwalda.

Bulwalda also did a lot of internal marketing — in Spanish and English — and personally talked to potential candidates for the classes without putting pressure on anyone.

"You have to kind of sell it a little bit," she said. "Just putting a piece of paper out on the bulletin board encouraging people to go find an English class wasn't enough."

Most of the employees in the classes are Latin Americans, although there also are seven Vietnamese workers and one person from Bosnia.

Although the lesson plans are carefully structured around Display Pack's needs and goals, the classes are fun, according to Buwalda. They begin in an informal, conversational-style discussion about ways to ask questions or offer directions. Then the topics expand to include safety issues, company values and the “DCU.”

DCU stands for the company’s Data Collection Unit. Workers on the plant floor are trained to use computer screens with data and reports updated constantly for each job. Using the DCU is part of the English classes so new employees still learning English are up to speed on the specific terms used when entering data.

The literacy council cites this statistic from The Employers' Association: 43 percent of West Michigan companies surveyed indicated that language barriers were a concern in their workplace.

It will be less of a concern at Display Pack.

For more information about the Kent County Literacy Council's Customized Workplace English program, contact Kristin Ekkens at (616) 459-5151, or kekkens@kentliteracy.org.

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