Skip to main content

Bridging the language gap through tutoring

Workplace Literacy Program helps support underserved talent in the manufacturing, farming sectors

share arrow printer bookmark flag

June 16, 2023

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – In Sheboygan County, the Family Resource Center (FRC) aims to help families, young children and adults in a variety of different areas.

One of those is workplace literacy – or more specifically helping employees overcome language barriers that may be halting their career advancement.

It is something Noah Kaufman, workplace literacy supervisor at the center, said helps employees with “overall communication within the workplace.”

“Instead of working with individuals outside of the workplace, we actually go into the workplace,” he said. “We (do) anything from one-on-one to large group instruction working with a whole group of people at their job sites, usually during their work hours, to help them learn safety language, workplace language and improve their overall communication within the workplace.” 

Program details
Kaufman said when he and other staff come into the workplace to tutor, there is a look of “relief on people’s faces.”

“Many employees are working 10-12 hours a day, five-six days a week, so they don’t have time to do other stuff after work, like going to a one-on-one tutor,” he said. “So, a lot of them are excited, relieved and happy. They feel more valued.”

Instruction, Kaufman said, is similar to what would happen in a typical tutoring classroom.

He said they start out getting to know their students and take an assessment to see what their strengths are and what they need to work on in order to tailor the curriculum to best suit their individual needs.

Students are then assessed throughout the classes and at the end of classes.

The duration of instruction runs on a company-by-company basis, Kaufman said.

“As a general principle, we ask companies to commit to at least six months for our initial contract,” he said. “Language acquisition doesn’t happen overnight – it takes us a lot of hours… Some companies have classes during the middle of your shift, some companies have classes during break time… so there’s a lot of flexibility between companies.”

Kaufman said the FRC works with companies, such as Kohler, Richco Structures, Sargento, Sohn Manufacturing and Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry – just to name a few.

And, though the center’s main function is to support businesses in Sheboygan County, Kaufman said the FRC also works with the literacy organizations in Manitowoc and Ozaki County.

Oftentimes, Kaufman said what the FRC teaches also depends on what the employers are looking to have their employees learn.

“One company we work with – they are looking to train a particular individual,” he said. “She started there many years ago, but she’s now risen through the ranks, and they want her to learn how to manage certain machinery, certain people and she lacks that language skill. We’ve been working with her on those language skills so she can get a promotion to (step into) a more supervisory role. So, sometimes it’s just general language and sometimes it’s more job-specific training.”

All-around benefit
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, foreign-born workers accounted for 18.1% of the U.S. civilian labor force.

It notes that around 35.7% of those workers hold management-related positions – 9% less than native-born workers.

These statistics, Kaufman said, are reflected in the companies that the FCR’s Workplace Literacy Program works with – and shows why it’s important to work with the employees. 

Noah Kaufman said the Workplace Literacy Program works with companies, such as Richco. Pictured here are a few Richo employees who are learning to introduce themselves when they meet others. Submitted Photo

“The vast majority of these employees working at these places are a minority population,” he said. “So, you have a minority population that is now able to get to that next level (through the program)… Overall, there’s that promotion aesthetic.”

Kaufman said an individual at Willman Industries in Cedar Grove is continuously rising through the ranks to close that gap.

“In part of the work we’ve been doing with him, he’s now a shift supervisor of the largest shift they have on the plant because he is now fairly fluent in both English and Spanish,” he said. “He’s a hard worker… Through a lot of his hard work, a lot of dedication, he’s now risen through the ranks to get into that supervisory position.”

A sense of culture and belonging in the workplace is also important to implement, Kaufman said.

“At Sohn Manufacturing, for example, they go on these weekly walks where everyone walks around the building for 15 minutes to chat,” he said. “Three of the employees they have don’t speak any English whatsoever, so when they go on a walk, they’re silent. They’re not able to be a part of that culture and community, so there’s that disconnect between the employee and the employer, as well as the other employees.”

Since Sohn has been working with the Workplace Literacy Program, Kaufman said those three employees have been able to communicate better with their coworkers during the weekly walk.

“(They have) started to participate in those conversations,” he said. “They’re able to say, ‘How are you? How’s your day?’ They’re more involved, they’re more invested and they’re more part of their community.”

Investing in employees, Kaufman said, in turn benefits the business.

Torginol, he said, is a great example of this.

The manufacturing company specializes in paint chips for flooring, which he said involves several different sizes, colors and labels.

“Someone has to manually take boxes off the shelf and mix things (as part of their job),” he said. “(They need) an enhanced understanding of English – the basic words (needed) for their work. (Torginol has) seen mistakes – expensive mistakes where you’re mixing the wrong thing – decrease (since implementing the literacy program). So, there’s the immediate, tangible benefit.”

Kaufman said a better understanding of the workplace language has also kept more employees safe.

“People can read the sign that says ‘stop,’” he said. “People can read the sign that says ‘pinch point.’ So, the big things are to increase safety, to increase production and increase communication and effectiveness as a team.”

A sense of belonging
One of the greatest things Kaufman said he has witnessed while working with employees through the workplace literacy program is a newfound sense of belonging.

“About three weeks ago, Richco threw a little celebratory lunch because we had achieved two or three months (of the Workplace Literacy Program),” he said. “You should have seen the smile on these people’s faces… I can’t speak for them entirely, but why would they leave an employer that cares for them, that supports them? So, now you have a group of 15 people that are loyal to you and are excited to be there because you are valuing them and investing in them.”

Kaufman said with the employee and the employer putting in the work, it also helps create a good work culture.

“It takes the employees a lot of work to learn a language, it takes a lot of effort and dedication,” he said. “But, it takes a lot of forward-thinking from employers to take that risk… (and) not get this immediate benefit. You’re investing in your employees and you’re tapping into a workforce that traditionally isn’t always tapped into because now you can employ as many people as you want that speak as many languages as they want. Eventually, they will learn to communicate.”

share arrow printer bookmark flag