Some mid-market companies have been joining giants like Walmart and Target with programs teaching English as another language to attract, retain and develop entry-level employees. Their CEOs have some advice about how human-capital leaders can tap into this approach themselves.
Cambria, a manufacturer of quartz countertops in Le Sueur, Minnesota, spends $400,000 to $500,000 a year for its English program, staffed by four teachers, in an effort CEO Marty Davis began several years ago. And Birmingham, Alabama-based Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafes has been working with an AI-based language-learning platform to teach English as a benefit and create stickiness with workers in an industry that arguably is being hit harder by pandemic labor dislocation than any other.
“We invest in language learning for our employees because it is the right thing to do—and because it results in dedicated, loyal employees who are excellent at their jobs,” Dan Simpson, Taziki’s CEO, told StrategicCHRO360.com.
Davis said Cambria is “investing in these people. We want them to grow. First-generation immigrant labor has been the foundation of U.S. manufacturing for a hundred years: Irish, Germans, Polish, Hispanics. This is how first-generation immigrants have climbed the ladder of capitalism.”
About one-third of Cambria’s 900 employees in Le Sueur are Hispanics from local families who are “rooted in our community and churches and schools,” he said. The company uses E-Verify to try to ensure they’re U.S. citizens. The company embraced this cohort of the workforce, Davis said, with celebrations of Hispanic cultural holidays at the plant, for example.
But most of these workers were “stuck in cleaning jobs and doing work where communications weren’t critical, other than for safety,” Davis said. “We didn’t like that. We didn’t like seeing that the same guy was cleaning part of the plant for four years.”
Cambria determined that helping these employees learn English would be the best way to unlock their potential for themselves and the company. “Just putting up a bunch of signs in Spanish around the factory wasn’t going to cut it for me,” Davis said. “That’s not fair to a Hispanic employee. You need to give them an opportunity. What happens when they leave here? We felt like we had an environment that was suppressing their growth and that we should provide them with opportunity.
“We got many of them in a room and said, ‘We’re going to teach you English. It’s the only way you’re going to grow into become a manager, a technologist, an engineer—or even my job,’” Davis said. “They embraced it.”
Thirty-seven Cambria employees have completed the program—equivalence in eighth-grade English—and there about 110 total participants at a time. “Many of them are line operators, supervisors and managers now, so this has proven to be successful for them and us,” Davis said. “We need growth labor who can expand their impact in our company. If you don’t help these people grow and allow them to sit in stagnant jobs, you lose them. Most people like to evolve.”
Remarkably, Cambria employees can participate in the school on or off their shifts and include family members in the instruction. “We make it as flexible as possible,” Davis said. “Our goal is to get them taught. It can amount to [paying] overtime. We try to manage it.” Cambria may add math instruction for its general employee population as well.
At Taziki’s, which has several dozen locations around the country including franchises, English instruction is a benefit. “Our employees who have used the program are native Spanish speakers who see better English proficiency as a way to unlock career mobility and a higher quality of life,” Simpson said.
For example, Eduardo Martinez used the English learning program and increasing confidence as well as hard work to ascend to a general manager position in five years. “Employees who have used the program have been promoted and become invaluable assets to our teams across the country,” Simpson said.
Now, Taziki’s is expanding the program to its franchisees and helping them identify candidates who can benefit from it and commit to the program.
Simpson said it’s important to pair “the right employee” with the program “at the right time in their lives.” That hasn’t always happened at Taziki’s, he said, “and we’ve learned that being tuned into the circumstances of their lives and their responsibilities helps us to make these connections at the right time.
“The more that our employees see their peers succeed and earn promotions by adding increased English skills to their great work ethic and Taziki’s knowledge,” Simpson said, “the more we expect to see the program grow and be requested by fellow team members.”