Higher Education, Human Resources, and Nonprofits

Literacy program cultivates ‘hidden talent’ in employees

Customized Workplace English classes aim to help employees with low literacy reach job security, advancement.

February 24, 2017
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Literacy Center of West Michigan
Hernandez reads her notes so she can plot a design to be programmed into a computer numerical control machine at GRCC. The class is part of the Literacy Center’s CWE program. Courtesy Literacy Center of West Michigan

The Literacy Center of West Michigan realized 16 years ago that the workforce was full of employees with untapped leadership potential: those who struggle with literacy.

It also saw a trend of worker turnover due to communication barriers and safety concerns, which hurt employers’ bottom lines.

In response, the nonprofit built a Customized Workplace English program (CWE) that harnesses the power of West Michigan colleges, universities and English educators to bring contextualized literacy training to the workplace.

Since the fee-based program was established in 2001, the Literacy Center has worked with more than 80 companies to provide customized literacy training classes, including Bethany Christian Services, Bouma Construction, Butterball, Display Pack, Kent Companies, Koeze Company, Lacks Enterprises, Plasan Carbon Composites and Ranir.

Wendy Falb, executive director, said during the Great Recession the program lagged because employers were cutting expenditures. Now, with a healthier economy, CWE is thriving.

“Employers are finding religion,” she said. “They’re finding a crunch for talent, and they’re not able to upscale good employees because of low literacy levels.

“These immigrants are amazing in technical skill and work ethic, but they’re limited to move up in the company because of their language skills and because of safety/production issues.”

Chad Patton, CWE program director, agreed.

“There’s hidden talent that literacy instruction can showcase,” he said.

Falb and Patton said most employees with low literacy are non-native speakers of English. To a lesser degree, they encounter native English speakers who have not progressed beyond a ninth-grade reading level — though that is not as common, because those individuals don’t usually self-report, out of fear and shame.

Patton said he and CWE coordinator Jennifer Summers start each partnership with an employer by interviewing the human resources personnel and operations staff to find out what their needs are, and then they meet with each employee to hear what their struggles are.

The pair then administers a Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems (CASAS) test, widely used for assessing basic reading, math, listening, writing and speaking skills.

Fact-finding and curriculum-building comes next.

“We take pictures, as much as employers let us, of work orders, work instructions and processes and include it into the curriculum,” Patton said.

“We pull from a few different curricula to create the plan, but a lot of what we create comes from the (information) we’re getting from employers. That’s anything that comes from the place of business that we can incorporate into our curriculum.”

CWE recruits instructors who have master’s degrees in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) for paid positions in the CWE program. But sometimes, there aren’t enough professionals with master’s degrees to meet demand.

“If we can’t find anyone with a master’s in TESOL, we have collaborations with Grand Valley, Western and Cornerstone to provide field opportunities for master’s in TESOL students,” Patton said.

Patton said classes are designed for 15-20 students, but sometimes, they will do classes with fewer and allow the instructors to modify their curriculum to fit the needs of a smaller class.

At the end of February, CWE will pilot a new program called Spanish for the Workplace, primarily for the construction industry.

“We will teach Spanish to mid-level employees/managers whose first language is English, and their goal is to speak with their employees better to improve the ability to communicate on both ends,” Patton said.

Similarly, last summer, CWE launched a partnership with Grand Rapids Community College and the Hispanic Center of West Michigan to recruit and teach Spanish-speaking community members who wanted to participate in GRCC’s machine computer numerical control (CNC) degree.

The bilingual Spanish/English class was taught by ESL instructors and machine CNC instructors at GRCC’s M-TEC Center.

Patton said that program may expand to include those pursuing a welding education.

Falb and Patton said when talking to employers about the CWE program, they emphasize the idea of return on investment.

“We’re going to see improvement in process due to literacy coaching,” Patton said. “There are times when employees make one mistake in a product, and they have to throw all of it away.

“The big return on investment is do you teach them to read so they know what product goes with what component to correct that waste, or do you say, ‘Well it’s waste, and it’s going to happen?’”

Falb said the Literacy Center held a Talent Challenge last year to educate employers about the talent gap and the ROI of teaching literacy to workers.

“Low literacy is this wall that is holding back people’s potential,” she said.

Patton cites a success story from a worker at a local automotive parts manufacturer.

“We had one learner who worked at Plasan Carbon Composites, and they have a glass wall where any of their employees are allowed to write on there an idea they have,” he said.

After going through the CWE program, “this employee now felt comfortable enough with her English skills to write on the glass wall.”

“That’s a big accomplishment,” he said.

Beyond personal growth for individuals, Falb said the CWE program is part of the Literacy Center’s broader mission to foster a “just and vibrant” region.

“It’s about economic vibrancy, which is often a result of social vibrancy, tapping people’s assets,” she said. “It’s recognition that a tremendous amount of people have assets that aren’t being actualized.

“And if you address an adult’s literacy, you’ll address their children’s outcomes, as well.”

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