Instructor Betty Alia teaches the English as a Second Language class at Stewart Industries <span class='image-credits'>Susan Andress</span>

Everyone wins: Battle Creek employers offer English lessons to immigrant employees


I do my best to say "hello" in Burmese, as three factory workers enter the Stewart Industries' boardroom for an English as a second language (ESL) class.

Or is it "MingalaPAH?" What Vung Cing, Tluang Hnem, and Remh Thanzam are saying sounds like a merger of the "p" and "b" sounds.

Their language developed on the opposite side of the world, using an alphabet, a grammar system, and sounds that are quite different from ours.

And from their point of view, they could say the same about English.

In Burmese, there's no "s" sound, ESL instructor Elizabeth Alia says. As an example of why that can be a challenge, she recites, "Is this, this is, it's, it is, is it? That's just -- oh my gosh, they get so confused by it. It all sounds alike!" 

Alia has taught ESL to children and adults, but this is her first ESL for the workplace class. Battle Creek nonprofit Voces hired her as one of its instructors for its pilot program to help non-English speakers learn language skills so they can keep, and advance in, their jobs. 

The students/employees, who work in assembly and inspection, are still new immigrants. Within the past two years, they escaped from the turmoil of Myanmar and arrived in Battle Creek's growing Burmese community. Stewart employs seven Burmese refugees in all.

I ask them, in my usual mumbly Michigan English, "Does this class help? Are you able to communicate better at work?"

The three laugh. Cing says, "Don't ask me!"

Alia tells them, slowly and with much more careful enunciation than I'm capable of, "He is excited that people can learn English at their job. You are learning English at your job. That's a new idea. That's a new thing." 

Climbing over the language barrier at work

Many new voices are entering the workforce, and Voces wants to help.

Voces began in 2007 as "an empowering space for Latinos" in the Battle Creek area, and is now helping all people in need of language translation, education and support services for families in need.

Josh Dunn, executive director at Voces, adds that "our main focus is still supporting Latino families, but it is also important to us that all immigrant families in need get the support they need...."

He says that they've been providing ESL classes since 2011. "We've grown to a point where we offer classes at four different proficiency levels, including a conversation class," Dunn says. 
Josh Dunn, Voces executive director. Photo by Mark Wedel All Voces' instructors have professional experience teaching English. "That's really important, so we can follow a tested curriculum, and really show the growth that our students are achieving."

Around five years ago, Voces partnered with the Van Buren Intermediate School District for access to Department of Labor tests to evaluate the workforce readiness of individuals, Dunn says. They use the CASAS (Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems) tests, which are the official Department of Labor measurement of language proficiency.

Voces started their on-site workplace classes this summer (2018), Dunn says. "We found that a lot of the community members that we work with at Voces wanted to take English classes but they didn't have the time. Especially if you're working 10-, 12-hour shifts, plus you have to take care of your life, the employment that they have was becoming a barrier to taking English classes."
Employees who can't speak or understand English in the shop get stuck in a loop, Dunn says. "You want to become more proficient so that you can advance in your career, but you can't advance in your career if you're not working. Most of our clients are not in positions where you can just take time off whenever you want to go take an English class." 

English proficiency helping families

Many of the employees have families who depend on their paycheck. If a lack of proficiency in English endangers that or keeps that paycheck small, families suffer.

"If you're stuck in one of the lower rungs of possible employment -- what's been in the conversation in the past couple of years? The ALICE population: The Asset Limited Income Constricted Employed," Dunn says. 

ALICE is a population highlighted by the United Way, Dunn points out -- families whose parents are hard-working, yet are teetering on the edge of financial disaster.  (And the United Way has provided strategic grant dollars for Voces' community-based ESL classes, Dunn later adds.)

"These are the people we want to help most of all, because they're stuck in this loop. A lot of our students fall within that category. They have a job, it pays what it pays, but they're stuck," Dunn says.

Language differences can also be a problem at home, he adds. Typically, "the head of the family might be an immigrant. English is not their first language. More often than not, their kids were born here or came here extremely young, so English is their primary language.

"What does that do to the power dynamic within a family? Especially if the parents don't have the time or capability to pursue an English education?" he asks. "Parents and children might occupy different worlds, and these English classes may help parents bridge that with their children."

English proficiency helping employers

To make this pilot program work, Dunn says they needed time out of employees'  workdays, and a space at the workplace for classes. Also, it would be best if workers could still be on-the-clock, to be paid for that hour of English class.

It's not an easy sell to employers, Dunn says. 

Their first workplace ESL class was hosted by II Stanley earlier this summer. Voces had eleven ESL grads from the class; five Spanish speakers, three Japanese and four Burmese, Dunn says. The company found a state-level employee training grant to help pay for costs, Dunn says, adding that "using it toward English classes is kind of novel."  But the case was made that "it achieves the same goal as any other of their training programs." 

There are other grants and partnerships to help companies host classes and to help Voces fine-tune its program. Battle Creek Unlimited and Kellogg Community College are observing the ESL classes at Stewart and providing guidance to help expand the program. 

Still, "the biggest barrier is costs," Dunn says. "All businesses have a very tight budget.... Also, as a society, (ESL classes for immigrant workers) is not a priority. We have this idea that people need to boot-strap it up. They need to come to me ready to go, and I'll provide X, Y, and Z, but not any English classes."

But this country has long had the need to fit immigrants into the workforce, and that need is not waning in this century. "This is the workforce that we have," Dunn says.

"It has been found by research that the more diverse your workplace is, the better outcomes you have," Dunn says. With ESL classes, employers can "capitalize on the potential of having a diverse employee pool that's capable of not only doing the job they're assigned but growing within the profession and within the institution." 

Happy employees

The classes are "geared toward workforce skills, immediate application that can be used towards improving safety, improving communication between employee and manager, improving communication between colleagues. All for the idea that in the end, everybody wins, because they're in a safer, more productive environment," Dunn says.

Back in the boardroom-turned-classroom, Alia points to the photos of Stewart bosses on the wall. "These are employers," she says with a serious tone at the end of the word. "You are employees! Happ-ee, employ-ees!" she says, brightly.

Alia keeps the class focused on workplace language. "Because they do assembly work, we focus on prepositions. 'Put it under, put it in, put it on, put it to the left....'" 

English as a Second Language Instructor Elizabeth Alia teaches the concept of empoyer to the class at Stewart Industries in Battle Creek. Photo by Susan Andress She introduces new words to the class: corner, edge, interior, and exterior. To demonstrate, she has them work on a small jigsaw puzzle. As we all know, you find the corner and edge pieces to start, work on the borders, then the interior.

The students learn the words, but have a hard time with the puzzle. It turns out that jigsaw puzzles aren't common in Myanmar, and this is the first time they've seen one. They have a better time with the "Hocus Focus" newspaper comic, pointing out the differences between the two scenes.

It's a learning experience for everyone, and a rewarding one as well, Stewart operations manager Mike Jones says after class. 

Workplace vocabulary is important, but one of the best ways cultures communicate is through cuisine. "At our lunches and potlucks, some of the greatest food brought in is Burmese! They make some great dishes, and we can try things that we normally wouldn't cook ourselves... We unify around meal often here," Jones says with a laugh. 

As workers get a better grasp of English, "they'll feel just more part of the family, it's more inclusive for them."

And for the company, the classes are "a true win/win," he says. It's a great benefit for business if employees understand work instructions, as well as safety and emergency drills, and are able to communicate with co-workers. "It's big for us, because it helps us with our quality, the product that we produce," Jones says.

Immigrants are always coming into the workforce, so, "you make it work, but there's more to be done, like classes." There has to be a "commitment, a company that's willing to take the time, to bring in trainers, to have classes -- that to me is the right message to the community," Jones says. "It's the right thing to do."


Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering everything from The Beastie Boys to invasive species. For more information see his website here.
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