ERIC Identifier: ED392315
Publication Date: 1995-12-00
Author: Burt, Miriam
Source: Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse for ESL
Literacy Education Washington DC.
Selling Workplace ESL Instructional Programs. ERIC Digest.
The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a rise in visibility for workplace
instructional programs to improve workers' basic skills and English language
proficiency. From 1988 through 1994, the U.S. Department of Education's National
Workplace Literacy Program (NWLP) funded more than 300 basic skills programs,
49% of which offered some English as a second language (ESL) instruction (Burt
& Saccomano, 1995). However, independent of (uncertain) federal and other
public funding, few companies actually provide instruction in basic skills and
ESL to their workers. In fact, a survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics
(U.S. Department of Labor, 1994) revealed that of the 12,000 businesses
surveyed, only 3% offered training in basic skills or in ESL.
This digest explores the issue of why companies do and do not provide
workplace basic skills and ESL instruction. It reports on data from a survey of
businesses in Illinois (Illinois Literacy Resource Development Center, 1993) and
from interviews with 18 workplace ESL program directors, teacher trainers,
curriculum writers, and instructors (Burt, in press); and it offers suggestions
to educational providers and independent consultants on how to "sell" or market
workplace ESL programs to employers.
WHY SOME BUSINESSES PROVIDE INSTRUCTION
providers, employees, and supervisors from twenty-one businesses in Illinois
were interviewed in a study of why businesses do or do not provide basic skills
and ESL instruction (Illinois Literacy Resource Development Center, 1993).
Fourteen businesses provided this instruction, seven did not. The following were
the reasons given for initiating workplace programs:
In manufacturing companies there has been a recent emphasis on quality, which
has necessitated a change in the manufacturing process. When companies provided
quality improvement trainings, they were not successful. Managers realized that
before these could be implemented, basic skills needed to be raised.
of top management to training and education
In some companies, training and education are part of management philosophy.
The classes offered in these companies often cover general knowledge and skills.
The goal is not necessarily to prepare workers to succeed in other company
training, but rather to allow them to pursue their own goals.
effort of an educational provider
Educational providers who were knowledgeable and willing to prepare and
design basic skills programs at a low cost have sold such programs to managers
who are aware of basic skills problems within the workplace. If the employers
and the educational provider have a "previously established relationship"
(Illinois Literacy Resource Development Center, 1993, p.3), there is a greater
chance the employers will buy the educator's services.
The businesses' preferred instruction providers were public schools,
community colleges, and universities. In fact, these were preferred over
in-house providers and commercial job-training providers. Their third, fourth,
and final choices were community-based organizations, private consultants, and
WHY OTHER BUSINESSES DO NOT PROVIDE INSTRUCTION
some of the Illinois business representatives interviewed indicated that they
were aware of employee deficits in basic skills and language proficiency, they
had not initiated workplace programs. The reasons given were:
Some companies did not offer training of any kind to any of their
employees--whether as perks for executives, technological training for middle
management, or basic skills instruction for entry level workers. Training of any
kind was seen as too expensive.
of upper management
Upper management was at times reluctant to initiate training. This was due,
in part, to lack of information about the need for programs, the kinds of
programs available, and the cost involved. A 1990 evaluation of state-financed
workplace-based retraining programs supports this finding (U.S. Congress, Office
of Technology Assessment, 1990). This study attributed managers' failure to
provide instruction to a lack of information about the best approach to use,
uncertainty about how to fit the training into new technology and work
processes, and reluctance to disrupt work schedules for an "elusive future
Some companies find other ways of dealing with basic skills deficits rather
than providing instructional intervention. For example, some businesses screen
prospective employees through a basic skills test. In a 1989 survey by the
American Management Association, 90% of the responding companies said they would
not hire workers who fail such a test (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology
Assessment, 1990). Some companies organize the workplace so that the language
and literacy deficiencies of already hired workers do not hinder production.
These workers may be given the so-called back-of-the-house jobs such as
dishwashers or salad preparers, where they have no contact with the public, and
minimal, if any, contact with English-speaking coworkers and supervisors. In
many companies where most of the workers speak a common native language (often
Spanish), frontline managers speak the native language of the workers and the
lack of English skills becomes almost irrelevant to the work flow (Burt, in
press). However, although the native language may be used almost exclusively in
some entry-level positions, in order for workers to be promoted, good English
skills are still obligatory (McGroarty, 1990).
HOW EDUCATIONAL PROVIDERS CAN SELL THEIR PRODUCT
ESL educators from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of
Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Texas, and Virginia were asked how
programs can best sell their services to businesses (Burt, in press). These
practitioners were from educational institutions, community-based organizations,
volunteer organizations, union consortia, or from within the business itself.
Three were independent consultants who had started their own companies to
provide workplace ESL instruction.
The following themes surfaced, many of which echo the conclusions drawn from
the survey data listed above.
Start out with a better chance of success by contacting companies with a history
of offering training for employees at all levels, not just as perks for
Don't promise what cannot be delivered. It is not likely that a workplace ESL
class of 40-60 hours will turn participants with low-level language skills into
fluent speakers of English. Educate all the stakeholders--the general managers,
the frontline managers, the human resources department, and the prospective
learners themselves--about the length of time needed to achieve proficiency in a
Offer short courses, or "learning opportunities" (Jurmo, 1995, p. 12) with a few
specific, attainable goals. Discrete, highly targeted courses such as accent
reduction, teamwork skills, and pre-total quality management (TQM) are saleable
and give learners skills to use in any job or workplace.
Seek ways to maximize resources and personnel already at the workplace. Programs
can schedule a one-hour class/one-hour study time match at work sites where
there are learning centers for individual, computer-assisted instruction.
Instructors can team with job skills trainers to offer vocational English as a
second language (VESL). The program can require home study to match workplace
course hours. This is especially important when offering instruction to learners
with low-level English skills who may not yet have the language proficiency
necessary to access the more specialized courses listed above.
In addition to providing instruction on American workplace practices and values
to ESL learners, offer cross-cultural courses to both native and nonnative
English speakers at the workplace. This may help dissipate feelings that the
language minority workers are getting special treatment and can directly address
the need for better communication at the workplace.
Develop realistic ways of documenting how instruction has improved performance
at the workplace. Promotions due to improved skills are very impressive;
however, in many companies, downsizing is occurring, and no one, native or
nonnative speaker, is being promoted. Instead, educators can cite other
indicators of improvement, such as increased number of written and oral
suggestions made by learners at meetings or other appropriate times; increased
number of learners expressing the desire to be promoted; and increased number of
learners asking to be cross-trained. (See Mikulecky & Lloyd, 1994; and
Mrowicki & Conrath, 1994, for discussions of measuring and documenting
improvements at the workplace.)
Make certain that general managers actively support the program. They authorize
the classes and their authority is necessary to ensure that their frontline
managers (the participants' direct supervisors) strongly support the classes.
The supervisors will arrange schedules so that workers can attend classes,
provide opportunities on the job for them to use what they are learning, and
encourage them to attend classes regularly. (See Kirby, 1989, for a discussion
of the role of frontline managers in ESL instructional programs.)
Don't insist on teaching language for the workplace only. Although the workplace
is the core of and the backdrop for instruction, workplace instruction does not
need to be connected exclusively to workplace skills. Educators know that
learning means transfer of skills to other life situations and learners have
always sought this link. Many educators interviewed said that company management
asked them to teach life skills and general communication skills as well as
workplace skills, especially to learners with minimal English.
Although basic skills and English language
instruction are often viewed as real needs at the workplace, few companies
provide this for their workers. With the decrease in federal and state funds
available for instruction at the workplace, it is not enough for educational
providers to design, implement, and evaluate workplace instructional programs.
They must also be able to "sell" their programs to the businesses they are
asking to sponsor the instruction.
Burt, M. (in press). "Workplace ESL instruction:
Programs, issues, and trends." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Burt, M., & Saccomano, M. (1995). "Evaluating workplace ESL instructional
programs." ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: Project in Adult Immigrant Education and
National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
Illinois Literacy Resource Development Center. (1993). "Learning that works:
An exclusive summary report." [Champaign, IL]: Author.
Jurmo, P. (1995). "Final evaluation for the 1993-1994 cycle of 'The Cutting
Edge,' El Paso Community College's workplace education program." East Brunswick,
NJ: Learning Partnerships.
[Kirby, M.] (1989). "Perspectives on organizing a workplace literacy
program." Arlington, VA: Arlington Education and Employment Program. (ED 313
McGroarty, M. E. (1990). Bilingualism in the workplace. "The Annals of the
American Academy, 511," 159-179.
Mikulecky, L., & Lloyd, P. (1994). "Handbook of ideas for evaluating
workplace literacy programs." Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. (ED 375 264)
Mrowicki, L., & Conrath, J. (1994). "Evaluation guide for basic skills
programs." Des Plaines, IL: Workplace Education Division, The Center-Resources
for Education. (ED 373 261)
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. (1990). "Worker training:
Competing in the new international economy (OTA-ITE-457)." Washington, DC:
Government Printing Office. (ED 326 622)
U.S. Department of Labor. (September 23, 1994). BLS reports on
employer-provided formal training. "Bureau of Labor Statistics News."