Every weekday from 3 to 5 p.m., employees take a flight of stairs leading to the Estherville Foods conference room. There, employees of the egg and egg product processing facility become students.
During this time, non-English proficient employees who work at Estherville Foods can improve their English listening, speaking, reading and writing skills — all in the workplace.
In October 2016, Assistant Manager Mike Amdahl and Corporate Director of Human Resources Mike Ebbing requested a meeting with representatives of the Adult Education & Literacy Program at Iowa Lakes Community College.
They wanted to offer a class for their non-English proficient employees, but they wanted the class to take place on-site. While the AEL program offers multiple English as a Second Language classes on campus, Estherville Foods runs a three-shift day, meaning many of its employees could not take advantage of ESL classes because of their work schedules.
As a solution, a free ESL class was located at their facility with an AEL instructor, books, instruction, and testing.
So far, the solution has been working. The first class started in November 2016, and the second year has already begun.
The system is simple: The class is held during the shift change at 3 p.m. Employees who work first shift stay an extra 2.5 hours, second shift works their regular schedule and third shift comes in two hours early.
Employees are paid for the time they spend in class as it is an extension of their work day. Employee eligibility is based on merit and desire. It is understood that attendance is a privilege; if student employees do not show up for class or are not participating, they are not allowed to attend class any longer.
“Every company should offer these classes,” said Raul Sandoval, a student employee in the ESL class. The convenience of the classes allows him to attend so he can improve his English.
For him and classmate Jonathan Cubillas, classes have improved their ability to talk to others, understand directions, complete paperwork, and read signs and manuals. They also enjoy the classroom activities and working together with classmates to build their skills.
Working and learning
Joseph May, now an assistant manager at Estherville Foods, teaches the ESL classes. When the class began, May was an ESL instructor for Iowa Lakes, giving him the experience needed to teach classes successfully. His classes are multi-leveled, and students range in English proficiency between a second- and sixth-grade level.
May said teaching and working at Estherville Foods simultaneously gives him an advantage.
“I understand them more from the employee perspective. I know what they need help with at work and can zero in on them individually because they aren’t just in my class, I work with them every day,” May explained. “… because they know I want them practicing English, even outside of class I know they are working on their skills, which isn’t the case for other ESL classes.”
May incorporates competency-based learning strategies and activities into his classes. He utilizes company paperwork during lessons, has students translate Spanish documents into English and read them to him, and requires them to practice the skills they learn inside and outside of work.
He tries to keep things interesting for the students by discussing topics such as their preferred soccer teams, which they then write about. Because it is easier to be confident speaking to an instructor or classmate, at the end of the year, May requires students to give a tour of the facility to a guest. Students must describe their work, answer questions regarding the processes and equipment, and introduce the guest to personnel.
The biggest impact on employees and the company, however, has been on communication as a whole, May, Amdahl, Sandoval and Cubillas agreed.
Non-English-proficient employees are more confident in speaking with colleagues and supervisors, they understand directions more clearly, and comfort levels between all employees have improved. English-speaking colleagues are more likely to speak with the students conversationally. Even supervisors are quicker to ask for their help.
Additionally, the student workers are building skills that they use not only at work but at home and in the community as well. These improvements affect their lives exponentially as they become more self-reliant and more involved in their communities.
Best of all, the camaraderie between English and non-English speaking employees has improved as they build friendships that did not exist before.
Taking a proactive approach
Foreseeing workforce changes, Amdahl began learning Spanish so he could communicate with his company’s employees. But he also saw Estherville Foods needed to do more: The company needed to be part of the solution.
By seeking creative approaches to complex issues rather than ignoring them, Estherville Foods has achieved growth, earned respect, changed public perception of itself and helped its employees grow as a team.
“We are demonstrating to our employees their value to us — we care about them and want them to succeed,” Amdahl said. “We are trying to change the way our employees think about their role in the company, and empower them to contribute ideas that will make us a better, more profitable company and a more enjoyable place for them to work.”
Building partnerships between education, industry, and community leads to great programming and spurs economic growth and vitality.
“The relationships we build and partnerships we create are opportunities to meet the growing needs of employers and community members,” said Iowa Lakes AEL Programmer Lisa Washington.
“Not only are we striving to implement seamless transitioning for our students between adult education and the workforce, we’re meeting with community and industry leaders to discuss their needs.”
Employers feel many of the people they hire are low in basic English literacy, reading, and math skills — and that includes both English-speaking and low-English-proficiency employees, Washington said. They also report their employees are low in soft skills, such as work attendance, teamwork, and conflict resolution — necessary skills for good employees.
“We are taking those concerns and incorporating strategies and activities into our classrooms instruction that address workplace readiness skills to better prepare our adult learners for the workforce,” Washington said. “We appreciate the opportunity that Estherville Foods gave us to partner with them in their facility. This concept is working and we hope to expand our offerings with Estherville Foods as well as with any other business who feels they could benefit from something similar.”
To learn more about the Adult Education & Literacy Program, visit https://www.iowalakes.edu/academic_programs/adult_education__literacy_program, call any of the Iowa Lakes Success Centers, or contact Executive Director of Community & Business Relations Jolene Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org new email or 712-362-0431.
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Executive Director of Community & Business Relations Jolene Rogers at email@example.com new email or 712-362-0431