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Workplace Instruction and Workforce Preparation for Adult Immigrants
Miriam Burt and Julie Mathews-Aydinli
(This brief is also available in pdf format).
(For more information on factors to consider when planning for, setting up, and evaluating a workplace program for immigrant workers, see CAELA FAQ # 20).
Background on Adult Learners
Adult education programs serve learners who are native English speakers and those whose first, or native, language is not English. Native English speakers attend adult basic education (ABE) classes to learn the skills needed to earn high school equivalency certificates or to achieve other goals related to job, family, or further education. English language learners attend English as a second language (ESL), ABE, or workforce preparation classes to improve their oral and written skills in English and to achieve goals similar to those of native English speakers.
Audience for This Brief
This brief is written for adult ESL teachers and program administrators, as well as educational researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders who work with adult English language students in ESL, vocational, ore workplace-based classes.
Oral English fluency and literacy have long been considered to be key factors in workforce success. Since 1964, the importance of immigrant adults being proficient in English to be successful at work has been one reason for federal funding for adult education programs (Chiswick & Miller, 2002; Moore & Stavrianos, 1994).
Adult educators across the country are seeking ways to ensure that foreign-born adults will be successful in gaining English proficiency and in entering and advancing at the workplace. This brief reviews the three venues in which federally funded instruction to help immigrants become successful at work is offered – at the workplace, in vocational classes, and in adult English as a second language (ESL) classes. Basic program features and the strengths and challenges of each type of program are described, and recommendations are given for addressing the challenges. This information will help program administrators and teachers select, establish, and improve programs for the adult immigrants they serve.
Strengths of workplace-based classes
Authenticity of content. Materials used in instruction that are drawn from those used in the workplace can have positive outcomes for learners. Teachers and administrators in a workplace-based program in Pennsylvania described their use of and success with workplace materials (Monti, 2004, 2006), and Jacobson, Degener, and Purcell-Gates (2003) found positive outcomes when authentic materials were used in workplace instruction for adults. These investigators argue that adults need to engage in practice of real-life situations to retain what they have learned and to believe that the time they spend in the program is worthwhile. Linking the learning of English clearly to practical and professional contexts through use of authentic materials is one way to address this issue. In addition, the workplace can be its own language and skills learning laboratory, with materials that include safety posters, memos, tools, and machines, and with co-workers and supervisors with whom to interact. Specific vocabulary, including the names of machines used and other specific terms used on the job, can be discussed and practiced where they are used and needed.
A positive work environment. When native English-speaking co-workers are involved with immigrant workers, as peer mentors or conversation partners, this can help to strengthen teamwork and a sense of community at the workplace. The result can be a more pleasant working atmosphere as well as more efficient work practices. For example, as Gerdes and Wilberschied (2003) report in their description of a workplace ESL program at a restaurant chain in Cincinnati, Ohio, the nonnative English-speaking workers appeared more confident on the job, and interactions between native and nonnative English speakers increased when they participated in classes together and the native English speakers served as peer mentors in the classes. It is possible that offering classes at the workplace sends a message to nonnative English speaking employees that they are of value to the company. This can reduce worker turnover, improve productivity, and reduce the likelihood that the company will need to close down or move offshore (The Manufacturing Institute, 2006).
Challenges of workplace-based classes
Learner discomfort. Workers learning English might be uncomfortable in classes in the workplace, fearing that poor classroom performance could affect their employment. Co-workers might also make fun of their language. For example, at one work site, learners trying to speak English at team meetings reported being laughed at by native English-speaking co-workers for demonstrating nonnative-like pronunciation (Moore, 1999). Even at a multinational company that deliberately sought out workers from other cultures, immigrant workers with high-level English language and literacy skills reported feeling insecure on the job due to co-workers’ reactions to their inability to speak English as native speakers (Thompson, 2006). Another reason for discomfort in workplace ESL classes is when programs project a deficit attitude, with workers in the classes viewed as deficient and lacking in some way (in this case, in language skills) and therefore needing help (Gallo, 2004).
Teacher knowledge. Obtaining authentic materials used on the job is time consuming, and instructors may receive no compensation for gathering these materials, be uncertain about how to use them, and lack training in workplace ESL instruction. Another challenge concerns how much an instructor needs to know about workplace-specific tasks. Is it necessary for ESL instructors to know how to weld or fix a computer to meet the needs of learners in the workplace? Some practitioners argue that teachers need to understand the language and discourse used on the workplace, while others maintain that at least some familiarity with learners’ tasks at work is also necessary. Because of these and other challenges, teacher training is essential in workplace ESL. Training that includes requiring instructors to job shadow employees and interview managers and others at the workplace is recommended (Johns & Price-Machado, 2001).
Sensitive issues. An ESL class sponsored by an employer and held at the workplace may be less likely than vocational or general ESL class, held at another location, to address workplace problems. For example, immigrant workers (possibly more so than native English speakers) in workplace training courses may feel apprehensive about raising sensitive issues, such as relations with nonnative English-speaking co-workers or worker rights and responsibilities, when their ESL classes are held at the workplace. In fact, some researchers point out that the real and important issues of workplace safety may be less likely to be addressed in a workplace situation than they would be in a class outside the workplace (e.g., Katz, 2000; Smith, Perry, & Moyer, 2006). The same unease that keeps immigrant workers from reporting unsafe work practices or safety violations may also prevent them from bringing them up in workplace ESL classes (Kalarao, 2004). Kalarao notes that cultural differences may lie behind workers’ reluctance to talk about such issues and recommends that all workplace-related ESL training, regardless of where it occurs, should be designed with cultural differences in mind. The decision to use or to not use English and to adopt workplace attitudes and behaviors of native English speakers may be affected by a desire to maintain one's own cultural and linguistic identity (Moore, 1999; Pierce, 2001).
Views of education vs. training. Many business leaders are not accustomed to supporting long-term educational endeavors and may not understand the length of time it takes to learn a language. Thus, pedagogical arguments about the value of learning over time run counter to the average employer’s goals when establishing a workplace ESL program. Grognet (1995) describes the distinction as follows: Educators are attuned to education, business leaders to training. Education is long-term, sequential, knowledge oriented, decontextualized, and connected to other education and advancement opportunities within a company or across companies. Training is short-term and not sequential, and may be separated from other plans and opportunities. Many companies are familiar and comfortable with the concept of training but less so with education (Burt, 1997).
Some companies may fear that if employees, including nonnative English speakers, are given training of any kind, they will move on to another job (Chenven, 2004; Creticos, Schultz, & Beeler, 2006; Katz, 2000). This may be one reason that some companies are willing to invest in training for workers on specific, non-transferable skills that will be useful in their particular context but not so willing to provide more open-ended training that could lead to opportunities outside the company. Most employer-provided training programs are developed for and offered to managers or other highly skilled workers (Ahlstrand, Bassi, & McMurrer, 2001).
Limited opportunities to earn a credential. Moving from an entry-level job to a higher-level position might require workers to obtain a high school diploma (or GED) or an industry certificate of some type. Typically, workplace programs do not offer these credentials (The Manufacturing Institute, 2006). Even if instruction improves their skills, workers may not meet the standards needed for promotion without a certificate or credential. Similarly, if workers belong to a Union, workplace classes may not give them a bargaining edge if they do not have a needed certificate or credential.
Strengths of vocational classes
An arena for practice. The vocational classroom can provide an opportunity to learn specific skills in a less stressful environment than on the job. Using actual materials, tools, and machines that will be used on the job, learners have opportunities to practice the skills and language needed, without the risk of feeling foolish in front of co-workers or employers for making mistakes with the language or skills (Katz, 2000, Platt, 1996).
Challenges of vocational classes
Teacher reluctance to work with nonnative English speakers. Vocational skills teachers may not have the desire or the skills to work with nonnative English speakers, or they may be unaware of the needs of adult immigrant learners (Platt, 1996).They may also feel they have no time to teach anything besides vocational skills during the class. A concurrent approach, where an ESL teacher and a vocational skills teacher work together, holds promise for addressing these concerns and meeting the needs of English language learners (Casey, et al., 2004; Wrigley, et al., 2003)
Financial need. The length of time needed to learn English, vocational skills, and cultural norms can result in considerable costs to learners, and they may need financial assistance. If they obtain such assistance from a Pell Grant, available to students with low income who are enrolled in a credit program that offers an occupational certificate or an associate (two-year) degree, there are a number of requirements they must meet. If they are nonnative English speakers, they may need to pass English language proficiency tests (Wrigley, et al., 2003). If they do not have a high school diploma or a general equivalency degree (GED), they may need to pass an “ability to benefit” test to demonstrate that they can be successful in the program. (For information about Pell Grants, see www.ed.gov/programs/fpg/index.html.) There may not be time to pass these tests and learn the language and vocational skills needed before the grant money is gone (Creticos, Schultz, & Beeler, 2006; Wrigley, et al., 2003).
Adult ESL Classes
Since the 1970s, with the arrival of almost 200,000 Indochinese refugees, many of whom had little previous education and low literacy skills in their native language, preparation for the workplace has been a focus of instruction in adult ESL classes. Rather than teaching English language skills without reference to any particular context, instructional programs can integrate elements of workplace language and culture, including workplace skills such as teamwork (Marshall, 2002b).
Strengths of adult ESL classes
Nurturing atmosphere. The goal of adult ESL classes is that learners learn English and succeed in accomplishing their goals, and the atmosphere can often be characterized as “nurturing” (Mathews-Aydinli, 2006). While the transition from this environment can be a challenge for students preparing for academic classes, where a premium is placed on grades, correctness, and language complexity, it can also provide advantages for adult learners preparing for the workplace. When teachers simulate workplace situations by assigning tasks that students may need to carry out such as training new employees, organizing materials and equipment to be used, and leaving messages if they are going to be absent; and learners work in teams to solve problems, they have a safe space to try out workplace-specific language and behaviors. (See Marshall, 2002a, 2002b, for examples.)
Challenges of adult ESL classes
Teacher knowledge. ESL teachers may not know the language and communication skills needed for learners to be successful in the workplace. They may need to be trained in how to integrate workplace language and skills with the general ESL curriculum, as Marshall (2002a; 2002b) describes. This training might include visits to vocational classes and work sites.
Limited coverage of specific skills. The culture of each workplace is distinct (Ehrenreich, 2002). The diversity of students in adult ESL classes means that the specific issues, language, culture, and rules of a given workplace may not be addressed. When students work in very different contexts, worksite-specific vocabulary and the individual culture of a given worksite are less likely to be covered.
Irregular learner attendance. The challenge of having limited time to spend on workplace skills may be exacerbated by the fact that attendance in adult ESL classes is often sporadic due to transportation, work, and family issues (Condelli, Wrigley, & Yoon, 2002). Students unable to attend class regularly due to family and work obligations may miss out on workplace applications.
The strengths and challenges of each program type are summarized below in the Table 1 and Table 2.
Ways to Address Challenges
Improve instruction in all venues.
What constitutes quality workplace-related instruction? Keeping in mind the limited time available and the need for results, Burt (2003) made the following suggestions for educators:
For more information about these strategies, see Burt, 2003 (cal-org.wdi.net/caela/esl_resources/digests/Workplaceissues.html) and Marshall, 2002a (cal-org.wdi.net/caela/esl_resources/digests/Englishwks.html).
Link ESL and job skills training.
For higher-level learners: Provide necessary credentials and placement services. The data from community college programs indicate that a combination of ESL instruction, college credit, and a credential can result in increased income (Prince & Jenkins, 2005). However, immigrant adults’ access to such programs is often limited. Support for programs that encourage immigrant participation can be made available by businesses and foundations (e.g., the Annie E. Casey foundation funds initiatives to strengthen the economic success of low income working families; Martinez & Wong, n.d.). Collaborations can also be established to ensure that workforce preparation courses do the following:
Some adult immigrants have the necessary credentials work but may have difficulty obtaining a job commensurate with their training and abilities (Creticos, Schulz, & Beeler, 2006). Job placement and other support is needed for immigrants with college degrees and adequate English who are underemployed. Although they may have the language and work skills needed to perform high-level jobs in the United States, they may need help finding jobs and learning how to operate in the U.S. workplace. One organization that provides these services is Upwardly Global (www.upwardlyglobal.org/about/index.php), a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, which matches highly skilled and educated immigrants with employers. Upwardly Global helps immigrants write résumés and develop their interviewing skills, and provides them with information about the culture of the U.S. workplace (Barbassa, 2007).
For beginning-level learners: Increase access to programs. If students do not have the education necessary to participate in a vocational program, collaborations can ensure that needed services are available that enable learners to access and be successful in ESL classes. Businesses, foundations, and other stakeholders can work together to
College-bound students can hold dual enrollment in high school and college and receive college credits for classes they take in high school. However, credit-based transition programs (CBTP) often serve primarily academically proficient or high-achieving high school students (Hughes & Karp, 2006). In the past few years, policy makers, education reform groups, and researchers are increasingly advocating for these services to be available to middle- or even low-achieving high school students. Immigrant learners in high schools could also benefit from CBTP. These courses could prepare them for the content and skills they need, while also increasing their comfort with attending post-secondary school. This is especially true if there is a true collaboration between a high school and a college – one that allows students to access college facilities and services.
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This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-04-CO-0031/0001. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.