Closing the language gap positions Battle Creek's Snackwerks employees for greater success

In the past two years, the workforce at Snackwerks has doubled to 120 employees, about one-third of whom are Hispanic.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

An investment made to bridge the language gap for non-English speaking employees at Snackwerks will pay dividends, not necessarily of the type that will excite those focused solely on the bottom line.
 
On Tuesday that investment was made visible during a graduation ceremony that honored 10 employees who successfully completed ESL (English as a Second Language) classes offered by Snackwerks. The classes were a test run for an initiative that the company's leadership plans to continue offering to employees who want to develop fluency in the English language, says Brandon Hultink, Snackwerks’ Director of Human Resources for the company.
 
“A lot of our workers really struggle with a basic understanding of any English,” Hultink says.
 
While this barrier doesn’t hide their talents in the jobs they perform, it does make it more difficult for them to take on leadership roles and that was a concern for Jeff Grogg, Founder and President of Snackwerks and President and CEO of JPG Resources.
 
Certificates were presented to Snackwerks employees who completed the “Workforce English as a New Language” course.“Jeff wants to make their lives better through the jobs they have,” Hultink says. “Within Snackwerks we want you to be an employee who likes your job, but we also want to make your life better.”
 
In an earlier interview with On the Ground Battle Creek Grogg said, “There are a lot of ways to make things better and they don’t always have to be about the money.”
 
The $5,000 cost of the pilot ESL classes was paid by the City of Battle Creek’s Small Business Development Office through grant money it received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation specifically for interpretation and translation work in the community, says John Hart, Director of the SBD Office.

These funds were set up to advance people in small businesses, but in this case, they’re also benefiting workforce development, Hart says. “It’s a good use of the funds to help advance folks.”
 
That SBD funding was used to hire an instructor from Voces, in addition to the purchase of workbooks and other materials for employees who chose to participate in the classes. The majority of the participants were Hispanic.
 
In the two years since joining Snackwerks, Hultink says the workforce there has doubled to 120 employees, about one-third of whom are Hispanic.
 
Elizabeth Delgado Galeno, left, and Araceli Raphael are two Snackwerks employees who completed the “Workforce English as a New Language (ENL)” course. The course was done in conjunction with VOCES and the support of the City of Battle Creek.“As we’ve grown, our Hispanic community has grown with us and more than half of them some speak just enough English to get by and communicate with you. Some don’t speak it at all,” Hultink says. “This is holding them back. Some of them are very talented within the jobs they’re doing and we have roles within those jobs that are line leader positions and in order to take those jobs they have to be able to communicate with everybody. We want to make sure they have those opportunities.”
 
Hultink describes Snackwerks as “the smaller version of Kellogg.”
 
“We don’t make our own food. Our clients bring us their ingredients and we batch those ingredients so that they can be mixed, baked, cooled, packaged, and put on pallets ready for delivery,” he says. “The two main areas are production where we’re making the food and the packaging and those two areas each have leadership at different stages. We have three lines running three shifts. We have so many different opportunities for leadership. There’s a lot of talent we’re not accessing.”

For people trying to start a new business one of the barriers often cited is issues with language, Hart says, but those issues also come in to play when an individual is trying to move through processes involving permitting, training, or licensing.
 
Mary Okamoto of VOCES talks to the Snackwerks employees who completed the ENL course.“In this case, Snackwerks wants to advance many of their employees but language becomes a barrier for that,” Hart says. “In order to be someone in leadership you have to be able to engage others. They cited that as a critical element. They have great employees but they are struggling with language barriers.”
 
The company has signage throughout its facility on Goodale Avenue in both English and Spanish and publishes a newsletter in both languages, but this doesn’t address the language gap.
 
Classes began during the first week of September and took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays for eight weeks. Hultink says the majority of participants chose to take the classes after work. Two decided to do it before their shifts started.
 
“They were meeting on their own time and were not receiving any compensation for doing this,” he says. “They have to want to do that. It’s not like you’re required to do this to become a line leader. We’re getting them out of their comfort zone and enabling them to realize the potential that they have.”
 
Hultink says the dedication that each participant had was readily apparent. He would often see them with their workbooks practicing what they were learning and carrying on conversations in English with him and others.
 
Snackwerks General Manager Gunther Brinkman talks to the Snackwerks employees who completed the ENL course.“This has always been a dream of Jeff’s to improve the quality of life for his employees,” Hultink says.
 
In addition to the ESL pilot, Grogg also has hired a Success Coach through Michigan Works to help employees navigate through issues related to things like childcare and transportation. That coach’s sole job, Hultink says, is “to make sure our employees have better lives.”
 
English as a new language
 
As the community starts to embrace the different languages being spoken in Calhoun County, Jose Orozco Jr., Executive Director of Voces, says, “It’s going to be important to do partnerships like this. When business leaders say ‘I would like to be able to communicate with my staff’ that should be followed up with ‘I want to be able to be able to provide opportunities and build capacity.’  As Snackwerks grows and expands they have said they want their workforce to be ready to meet those demands and you’ve got to be able to communicate with folks.”
 
Orozco says Voces is trying to shift away from the language of ESL to ENL – English as a New Language. He says for a lot of students and other members of the Hispanic community English is more like a second, third, or fourth language.
 
Snackwerks employees, including Cristina Guererro, received certificates upon completion of a “Workforce English as a New Language (ENL)” course.“A lot of our folks speak different languages,” Orozco says. “It’s really beautiful because we have diverse clientele coming in to the Voces building.”
 
But, it wasn’t always that way and he says he remembers his mother telling him that she was scolded for speaking Spanish in school during classes. He says, “some of that stuff is up in my head.”
 
For him, the ESL classes being taught at Snackwerks are a validation and acknowledgment of the different languages being spoken.
 
“You have a boss who is saying ‘I want to invest in you. This is not only important for us as a company but for you as human beings.’ That was the sentiment from the very beginning at Snackwerks,” Orozco says. “They led with ‘Let’s figure this out.’ Gunther and his crew walked us around and made us feel comfortable there.”
 
John Hart of the City of Battle Creek listens to Brandon Hultink of Snackwerks.As the word spreads about the work the company is doing to better position its employees for success, Orozco says people in the Hispanic community are recognizing it as a fun place to work because they’re not made to feel like they’re an other.
 
“That messaging is really important for a business or company that wants to be successful,” he says. “Snackwerks is leading by example.”
 
Hultink says over the past year, they have been getting more Hispanic applicants “simply because of the way we treat their community.” He says he would like to offer another basic English class to see how many more people they can get involved and a tutor may be hired to do this work.
 
“This is not the end. However we decide to proceed with this program, we will always do this. If John’s funding had dried up we would have done it anyway. If we do a new class I’ll probably put out an interest request and I bet you I’ll get another 10 to 15 participants. Whether we use tutors or run two classes, we’re going to explore all those different avenues. We are going to have to expand it because of the need.”
 
Orozco says he is getting calls from other companies who want ESL in their workplace structure.
 
“We don't want to over-commit and underdeliver,” he says.
 
Pictured at Snackwerks ENL course graduation are from left, Jose Luis Orozco of VOCES, John Hart of the City of Battle Creek, Brandon Hultink of Snackwerks, and Miguel Flores of Illinois-based Go Raw.With a relatively new staff, this is work that can be done as he learned through the Snackwerks pilot program. He says, “They just needed to give us a little bit of grace as we were getting started.”
 
“This is important because we’re being intentional about bringing inclusiveness and helping any company that also wants to do that,” Hart says. “They want to advance their employees, find solutions and meet them where they’re at. They know that their employees have more skills to offer and leadership values to offer. Some of these individuals will move on to also open their own companies and small businesses. This is all part of a supportive ecosystem.”

 

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.