Is ESL Really Necessary For New Hires?

Passing a course in English as a Second Language (ESL) is a requirement for non-native English speakers as a stepping stone to employment in many manufacturing plants. Because of the belief that people who work in factories should have a total command of English, there are many skilled workers who are not hired.

Columns From: 4/1/2001 Modern Machine Shop,

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Passing a course in English as a Second Language (ESL) is a requirement for non-native English speakers as a stepping stone to employment in many manufacturing plants. Because of the belief that people who work in factories should have a total command of English, there are many skilled workers who are not hired. Most human resources departments feel the requirement to successfully complete an ESL program is necessary for productive employment. This does not address the advantage of finding skilled workers who can do the work, versus having skilled workers who can diagram a sentence after the ESL course is completed.

There is an immediate need for highly skilled workers. Both management and unions alike seek skilled workers to fill the demand for persons who can operate today’s sophisticated machinery. Many workers who have not taken the ESL cannot speak English with a great deal of clarity, but they are excellent machine operators.

But the general attitude is to send these skilled persons to learn English before they are hired and can become productive members of society. This is a detriment to the person, the company and the area’s economic development, since completion of ESL can take months, and in the meantime the worker is unproductive.

During a research project at the Manufacturing Productivity Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, students decided to examine how to bring more skilled workers into a shop as soon as possible. It didn’t take long for them to discover that the shop’s loss of productivity was mainly because of the requirement that potential hires had to pass an ESL course. It became obvious that these workers could become productive on the shop floor with about 1 day of orientation, less than 2 days of training with a translator, and with the cooperation of the plant supervisor.

The first hurdle was the human resources department. Some of the HR requirements for employment were a command of the English language, the ability to perform certain machining functions, and passage of the English test and a test covering math and some machining questions. But most of the HR managers and staff had never worked on the shop floor, and they did not know what was expected of the machine operators on an hourly basis.

One student of IIT’s Manufacturing Productivity Center sought advice from the faculty. While researching, the student realized that if the floor manager knew 25 to 35 words of the language of the workers, the manager would be able to communicate with them easily and quickly. Assuming that in most plants workers are from the same ethnic background, the language problem may not be as critical as other problems such as running the machines effectively and showing up for work everyday.

The need to integrate workers speaking different languages on the shop floor became apparent to the students when they learned that Europeans are trained in manufacturing beginning in the eighth grade and that there is a better training system in Europe. As U.S. schools scale down vocational machining programs, European workers have the skills and work ethic to fill the need for workers in the United States.

Students solved the problem of finding more skilled workers for the shop when they taught the supervisors 35 words of the foreign language and the workers 35 words of shop English. This training was facilitated with a “cheat card.” Students listed each of the 35 words and wrote them out phonetically, then did the same for the English words. A training session helped make sure that the card had all the phrases that the workers and supervisors needed and that the pronunciations were correct.

During an evaluation after a week of the program, the students found that the systems were working, though not great, and all machines had an operator.

After a month the students found a well functioning shop floor with the machines running at almost zero-based waste and zero-based rejections. Almost everyone was using the cheat cards. The next step in the project will be to establish an ESL program for shop workers and an advancement program. In a few months the students will ask that an ESL class become a requirement for promotion to supervisor.

Finding a method of placing skilled workers on the shop floor was accomplished with the 35-word cheat card. Next the students plan to develop translation cards for other languages for use on the shop floor.

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