Nine employees at Smokey Denmark’s Smoked Meats Co. in Austin, Texas, were once refugees living in the forests of Thailand. Driven out of their native Myanmar, they journeyed to the U.S. in 2009 and built a new life.
Now, courtesy of a workplace education program, that new life has expanded to include a growing proficiency in speaking English.
Investing in employees' skills has bolstered camaraderie, eased turnover and demonstrated respect for immigrant workers at the 26-employee company, says co-owner Melissa Pace.
"As their skills grow, we want them to be able to be promoted," she adds.
One out of every 10 working-age adults in the U.S. has limited English-language proficiency, according to Upskilling New Americans: Innovative English Training for Career Advancement, a 2019 report by the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C.
An inability to speak English prevents workers from advancing to better-paying jobs, while workplace English-language programs can open career paths and help employers retain and promote a diverse workforce, according to the report. Although many employer-sponsored English-language learning programs have been canceled during the pandemic, employers say they plan to restart them when conditions improve. Some, such as Agricare, a farm management company based in Porterville, Calif., are finding other ways to meet the need.
"We're reading through books with some of our teams to continue the positive impact of professional development and encouraging continued education," says Lovena Carrillo, SHRM-SCP, the company's human resources administrator. "We have encouraged employees to download apps, and we've purchased books to help continue vocabulary [in English and Spanish]. We're hopeful that, soon, we will be able to schedule some sort of in-person class while keeping our employees safe."
Before the pandemic, labor shortages prompted employers to turn to underutilized immigrant populations. The shortages were particularly critical among blue-collar workers and manual laborers, with 85 percent of employers in those sectors reporting recruiting difficulties, according to U.S. Labor Shortages: Challenges and Solutions, a February 2020 research report by The Conference Board. Just 64 percent of employers recruiting for white-collar positions said the same.
The research found that workplace English classes do more than attract non-English-speaking immigrants who are eager to expand their language skills. They benefit businesses because improved English proficiency correlates with increased employee engagement and retention.
The goal of such programs isn't to force employees to speak English. Notably, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes the position that requiring employees to speak solely English in the workplace is legal only if it's based on business necessity, a strict standard that requires proof that the employer can't operate safely or efficiently if employees lack English skills. Companies often provide English-language training with the goal of improving teamwork and morale.
Agricare has conducted workplace English training for three years in Oregon and planned to expand its classes to its California locations when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted, forcing a temporary suspension. The company manages 10,000 acres of farmland and employs 250 people. Its classes are also open to a sister company, Homegrown Organic Farms, which employs 45 people who sell and distribute the fruits that Agricare plants, grows and pits.
Why did the company launch the program? "The right question is, why wouldn't you?" Carillo asks. "There are so many positives. It's a good, collaborative tool to build relationships."
In addition to lifting morale, the classes seem to have helped improve productivity and efficiency, although the company doesn't formally measure its return on investment, she says. "When an employee learns English, they often start to become a spokesperson for their team or crew, and they take on more responsibility," Carrillo says.
Workplace English programs have been a growing part of the culture at MilliporeSigma, a life sciences and technology company based in Danvers, Mass., since 2017. The company paused in-person classes during the pandemic but plans to resume when conditions improve, spokeswoman Karen Tiano says.
"We have at least 12 different languages spoken on our production floor alone by people from more than 30 countries," says William Faria, the company's head of operations. More than 120 employees have received training in classes ranging from beginner to advanced levels.
Marie Baptiste, an immigrant from Haiti, credits the training with preparing her to advance from her previous role as an assembly operator to an assembly lead operator. In that role, which she has held since July 2019, she supervises about 30 workers who speak an array of languages.
"When I started, I was learning the job at the same time that I was learning English," Baptiste says. She jumped at the chance to participate in the workplace English program, seeing it as an opportunity to accelerate her language learning in both conversation and writing in a way that was directly relevant to her work.
After joining MilliporeSigma four years ago, Baptiste quickly became known as "a rock star" for her strong work ethic and status as one of the most efficient workers in the assembly plant, Faria says. Bolstering her English skills enabled her to become a leader.
"When I started in the class, like a lot of people, I just wanted to have better communication with co-workers," Baptiste says. "I was a little afraid when I applied for the lead position."
But her bosses reassured her that she was up to the challenge of supervising others.
"The company has found a way to make all of us really comfortable with English," she says.
Making It Work
Twincraft Skincare, a manufacturer of natural bar and liquid skincare products with plants in Winooski and Essex Junction, Vt., has 200 employees who speak 17 languages. The largest groups come from Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam and various African nations, says Elizabeth Perrin, director of the company's people center.
The company worked with the nonprofit Vermont Adult Learning to screen prospective students and run classes. A grant from the state of Vermont helped to defray costs, Perrin says. The program was suspended because of the pandemic, but she says it will restart as soon as it's safe to do so.
"Seventy percent of our employees are in production, and almost 40 percent of our full-time production employees are new Americans," Perrin says. The workplace English program reflects the privately held company's commitment to hiring and educating a culturally diverse workforce and helping newcomers acclimate to their new home.
Production employees work four 10-hour shifts a week, with workers onsite from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. The workplace English program was held onsite for four hours a week, split between Tuesdays and Thursdays, and each class ran 18 weeks. The training classes averaged 12 students and straddled two shifts. Employees were paid two hours of overtime for each class they attended.
Vermont Adult Learning assessed all students who signed up for classes to determine who would benefit the most. Demand for the classes outstripped the number of seats available, so the company relied on objective recommendations when determining who would get the coveted spots.
"The ultimate goal is to foster employees' opportunities to develop and grow in the organization," Perrin says. "We don't want them to stagnate."
From the first class offered, the benefits have been "just unbelievable," Perrin says. "We could immediately see a huge difference in the employees who went through it."
Learning some English helped to put employees at ease and fostered interactions with co-workers, she says. But beyond the ability to say "hello," "how are you" and "goodbye," they learned important workplace skills.
The company tailored the curriculum to its business needs, so the training focused on words and phrases used in the production line, Perrin says. Employees learned how to better understand safety issues; they also learned how to call out when they're sick and how to request time off when they want a vacation.
"We have been able to promote many people who attended the English-language learning classes," Perrin says. "Now we have a group who could be promoted again if they read and write a little more proficiently."
Skills such as reading standard operating procedure instructions and developing the computer skills necessary to respond to e-mails can take employees to the next level, she says.
Communication and Skills Development
At Smokey Denmark's in Austin, Elizabeth Maze is the English instructor for the workers from Myanmar. She says it's important to understand that literacy levels of workers in their native languages can vary significantly, with some having limited reading and writing skills in their own tongue. Workers with lower-level English skills generally aren't strong candidates for remote or online learning, although it can be a great interim step for workers whose skills are further along, she says.
"We focus on communication and their direct needs and desires for learning English," Maze says. "That means finding out what they want to learn instead of teaching from a textbook." Some of the earliest lessons had nothing to do with the workplace—for example, students wanted to learn words for parts of the body so they could speak with a doctor.
After getting some basics down and establishing rapport, Maze reached out to supervisors to find out what skills they wanted employees to develop. She found co-workers and supervisors were less concerned with work-related issues and more concerned with being able to say "hello" and ask workers if they'd had a good day.
Gradually, without forcing the matter, discussions often turned to the workplace. Maze has practiced reading safety guidelines and asked English-language learners to show her around the factory. Once she got students moving through the workplace, they quickly learned to use English to explain a conveyer belt, describe their jobs and introduce her to their bosses.
One important result is a loyal workforce with people who are better equipped to live in the community where their children go to school, Pace adds.
The Karenni- and Burmese-speaking employees who arrived in September 2017 have been a stable team, and that means less time needs to be invested in recruiting, interviewing and training new workers to do their jobs. Less churn in the workforce means one less challenge for a small employer, Pace says.
Turning the Tables
At Agricare, the initial success of the workplace English program led to a spin-off effort: a 10-week intensive Spanish class for English speakers. It was designed for managers and employees who interact with the mostly Spanish-speaking field staff. Turning the tables in this way was an acknowledgment that "we want to respect everyone's origin and culture, and think it's a two-way street," Carrillo says.
When employers offer English-language learning programs that will benefit employees in their jobs, they should consider the impact of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, since the time spent during the learning programs will likely be compensatory, says Karen Michael, an employment lawyer and HR consultant based in Richmond, Va.
"Even if the program is presented as voluntary, workers should be compensated for their time unless it is also outside normal hours, not job-related and no other work is concurrently performed," Michael says. Employers also need to avoid any action suggesting that they are offering the program to encourage an English-only workplace.
Tips for Succes
Some of the best practices identified by companies include:
Start small, but prepare to manage demand. Employers say they have found it beneficial to start with a series of beginner classes. MilliporeSigma, for instance, spent the first two years building the beginner classes before adding an advanced class in 2020.
"The first few classes were a new concept, and people were a bit shy," Faria says.
But word-of-mouth soon took over. "People were on the plant floor talking about what they were learning. Suddenly we went from having to ask people to join a class to more people wanting the class than we could accommodate."
Be realistic. "Companies may not realize how long it takes to learn a language and how much time needs to be put into it," says Abigail Curtin, language training manager at Language Connections in Boston, which operates workplace programs for employers nationwide. "No teacher could make someone understand a new language in 20 hours. We suggest classes two times a week, but some employers can only do one class a week."
Be welcoming. When field workers come into the corporate offices at Agricare, they can be quite hesitant because they don't work there on a daily basis, Carrillo says. "They'll ask if they can use the restroom or have water." That has taught the company to make it clear "that this is their workplace, too," she says.
Look for funding options. Smokey Denmark's pays $250 per month per employee for training, Pace says. MilliporeSigma and Twincraft Skincare executives say they have received state funding to defray the cost of the programs, and Agricare has solicited support from its growers and investors.
"They don't pay 100 percent," Carrillo says, "but they do help with costs because they see a value in it."
Debra Cope is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help companies and employees overcome cultural and language barriers at work.
Biden's Immigration Plan Legalizes Millions of Undocumented Workers
President Joe Biden proposed legislation on Jan. 20 that would create a pathway to citizenship for the 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., offering expedited green card eligibility to "Dreamers"—undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children—as well as to farmworkers and those under temporary protected status.
Toolkit: Intercultural Competence as a Key Enabler of Organizational Growth and Success
By helping employees of different backgrounds communicate better, HR professionals can help build a truly inclusive workplace that harnesses its diversity to drive productivity, innovation and creativity.
HR Q&A: Can we require that employees speak only English in the workplace?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission views rules requiring employees to speak English at all times at work as a burdensome condition of employment and will closely scrutinize such rules.
Cultural Awareness Is Needed in the U.S. as Well as Overseas
U.S. companies often take steps to become aware of cultural differences in the countries into which they are expanding. But cross-cultural awareness is valuable even in the U.S. when dealing with business leaders who have immigrated here.
Cultural Differences at Work: A Q&A with Erin Meyer
After living and working on three continents—Africa, Europe and North America—Meyer has learned firsthand how complex cultural differences can affect global businesses, for better and for worse.
Viewpoint: The Silencing of ESL Speakers
Research shows that we need to have diversity of opinion to make better workplace decisions. But bias—whether conscious or unconscious—against non-native English speakers causes "the silencing effect." They can feel isolated and excluded, and team meetings are less valuable as a result.