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Providing an understandable V-O-I-C-E

Literacy programs help retain employees, instill pride and facilitate communication

Story by Cheryl Hentz

December 2010

With a growing number of immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds, and a looming large number of Baby Boomers retiring, employers’ needs for well-educated employees who can communicate effectively – both orally and in writing – is greater than ever. That need includes being able to read and comprehend well, too.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, 30 million Americans read no better than the average elementary school child. And in Outagamie County alone, some 12,000 residents lack basic literacy skills.

Without literacy skills — the ability to read, write, do math, solve problems, and access and use technology — today’s adults will struggle to take part in the world around them and fail to reach their full potential as parents, community members and employees.

The New North region literacy councils and coalitions have been instrumental in helping employers gain employees who can communicate more effectively, thereby making them more effective in the workplace and more productive. Each year, more than 200 people receive help improving their literacy skills from the Fox Valley Literacy Coalition alone. 

According to Christine Cheevers, executive director of the coalition, one local employer who wanted to remain anonymous, but who had an employee who took advantage of the services said, “‘If Dan’s reading skills hadn’t improved, we simply would have released him and we would have hired somebody else.’ And this was a native English speaker, not an English language learner,” Cheevers said. “To me, this was huge, to know that one of the services we’re providing to people is to help them stay in a job where they likely would have had few options otherwise.”

Skills to grow

Another part-time employee at a local restaurant has taken advantage of the literacy coalition’s services and as a result, has since been able to secure additional part-time employment at two other restaurants.

“So he’s thrilled to be able to work at these jobs because he’s making more money now,” Cheevers said. “And not only has he been able to purchase a house for himself, but now he’s also buying income property, too.”

The number of employers who take advantage of the program varies at any given time, but even if a company itself hasn’t initiated some kind of literacy training for an employee, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t benefitting from or being helped by the services the coalition has to offer.

“The employer of anybody who is using our services could be said to be receiving our services, even if they didn’t send them to us directly. Most of our clients are employed and many of them are looking for a promotion,” Cheevers said. “As a result of the individual clients using our services, they are better able to communicate with their co-workers and customers. So the employers are still benefitting.”

One such employer was Famous Dave’s in Appleton. About two years ago, one of its employees decided to seek some help from the Fox Valley Literacy Coalition.

“He originally came to our area speaking very little English. He spoke a little bit, enough for him to land a job here, but he just really wanted to be able to communicate very well with everybody,” said Travis Urban, assistant manager. “He said as long as he was going to be working with English speakers, he wanted to learn better English.”

Now, a little over a year later, that employee has improved his reading and speaking skills and has advanced at his job.

A remarkable transformation

“His English has come through in giant leaps. It’s remarkable. He came to us basically being hired as one of our line cooks and within one year he was working shifts both at night and during the day, sort of like rotating shifts. And now he’s our six-day-a-week closer,” Urban said. “So basically we turn it over to him and know that everything’s going to get done the way it should. We look to him as our back of the house leader, more or less.”

Karen Schilt, program and volunteer coordinator at the Fox Valley Literacy Coalition, said most of the time their clients are businesses owned by minorities because they are already students or have been students and they are now seeking it for their employees.

“We don’t get a lot of American employers coming to us and saying they have ‘x’ number of employees who don’t speak English or could use better English. That may be because they don’t know about us and what we do,” she said. “But we’re trying to educate as much as possible about the fact that we’re here and the services we offer.”

One company that has approached Literacy Green Bay is Sanimax. Johnny Nowell, operations manager of the hide, skins and leather department said he brought the literacy program in to help with some of his team leaders. Many of them are Hispanic and had trouble with their English writing skills.

“They generate a lot of reports and emails, so it was more for written communication than anything else. But they also do a lot of reading, so this has helped them with their reading and comprehension. Overall it’s been very effective and they enjoy taking the classes and learning everything they are.”

One of the Sanimax employees working with Literacy Green Bay takes great pride in how he feels and how he’s valued as an employee because Sanimax is doing this for its employees, he notices the difference in his abilities.

“He says it’s always a work in progress, but he has remarked how he can see his reports becoming stronger with spelling and grammar,” said Literacy Green Bay workforce coordinator, Valerie Swartz. “So for him to be able to recognize how his own reports are improving is a great testament to the ability of the course and the company.”

“These are team leaders and they’re in charge of their careers. So this will help them either with their future with Sanimax, especially if they want to become a supervisor here, or it will help them with some other employer, if they decide to leave,” said Nowell. “It can help them in their personal lives, as well. They can even help teach their other family members English, if they have them.”

Aids in employee retention

“When employers sponsor such training programs, employees often stay at the job longer because they feel valued and feel pride for the company,” said Swartz. “That in turn saves the employer from having to spend additional monies to hire and train new employees as a result of greater turnover.”

“Many students feel they are stuck in their jobs and can’t advance until they have better English skills,” noted Literacy Green Bay administrator Jennifer Nelson, who also said that their workforce development program offers businesses a fee-for-service programming both in English and Spanish instruction.

“In other words, we can teach Spanish to management while we’re teaching English to the employees and we can even tailor that curriculum to be industry-specific,” she said. “For example, there might be a meat packing plant where the employees are learning English and it could be specifically about the meat packing industry.”

Their workforce development program was established about 10 or 15 years ago when there was a huge Hmong population surge, and it has expanded over time.

“All these companies were looking for us because there was a huge Hmong population looking for jobs, needing jobs and getting jobs, and they didn’t know how to communicate with them. So we developed a program to help train them,” Swartz explained. “Then we had the Hispanic population move in, so we’ve continued to offer these classes (and adapted it for them).”

All the literacy councils and coalitions in the New North region boast strong success with the clients they’ve worked with but wish they had more. As with some of her counterparts at other agencies, Dana Koch, education coordinator with the Winnebago County Literacy Council said she doesn’t think a lot of employers are aware of the services that are available.

“But if employers have employees who are learning English as a second language, or even if English is their first language but they are having trouble reading or writing, sometimes the employers are actually the first to be aware of it. So contacting the literacy council to address those issues can be of immense help to the company,” she said. “And it can all be done very quietly or discreetly, if need be, and on their premises, which for the English learning students, that’s especially helpful. So the program is a very useful tool to help get a lot more effective productivity out of their employees.”

The employers they have worked with in the last 10 years or so have come to them wanting their employees to do basic things that many English-speaking employees may do automatically and take for granted, Koch said.

“It can be very simple things like understanding directions, reporting on problems, understanding safety regulations, asking questions, or even calling in sick,” she said, adding that even those simple tasks can make employees more productive and efficient because they are more independent and give them a better feeling about themselves.

Cheryl Hentz is a freelance writer from Oshkosh with more than 25 years experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines and cover topics including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines and cover topics including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and animal rights, finance, politics and women’s issues. She can be reached at 920.426.4123 or via email at