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Business Investment in Upskilling for Incumbent Workers: Lessons from a Pre-Lean ESOL Program in Massachusetts

In a tight labor market, companies across the U.S. are mulling how best to upskill their incumbent workforce to meet business needs. A particular challenge is adults with foundational skills gaps in reading, math, or spoken English. These kinds of skill gaps can prevent workers from even being able to participate in occupational training opportunities that can help them improve their earning prospects and better contribute to the business bottom line.

In Massachusetts, one effort is demonstrating the value of employer-informed training approaches that capitalize on strong public policies and partnerships with experienced training providers.

The Pre-Lean English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program was created by the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) in collaboration with the nonprofit English for New Bostonians (ENB).

Formally known as Principles of Lean Manufacturing for English Language Learners, the program was sparked by the discovery that businesses eager to realize cost savings by training workers in Lean Manufacturing techniques faced a challenge: Workers who were English learners were not able to participate in the training on an even footing with their English-speaking colleagues.

National Skills Coalition spoke with Jim Gusha of MassMEP, Mark Camus of Russelectric, and Franklin Peralta of English for New Bostonians to learn about the program and the policies that facilitate it.

Why was this an important issue for your organizations to tackle?
Jim: Just as context, MassMEP works primarily with small and medium sized manufacturers. We have three different areas of focus: operational excellence, business development and innovation, and workforce development. Often that means moving people from unemployment into a job – helping them build basic skills like math and reading, as well as specific skills like Computer Numeric Control (CNC) operation, metrology, etc. We have strong relationships with local higher education institutions as well as training facilities in our offices.

But now that unemployment level is so low, you've got under-employed people. Companies are crying for help. We're looking to try and bridge that gap, to put together programming to reach those people and get them into the manufacturing workforce, or help them move up in their current roles. This project started off as a way to respond to a need that we were seeing among some of our manufacturers that have high numbers of immigrant workers [who needed to upskill].

Franklin: English for New Bostonians is a nonprofit, but we're also an activist grantmaking organization that funds 23 programs serving more than 1,100 English learners each year. There is a huge business component to our work, because across Massachusetts, 1 in 5 workers is an immigrant. Many of them are still building their English skills: 439,000 working-age people in our state are English learners.

So businesses are really important partners for us, especially in the manufacturing sector, where a lot of immigrants in our state are employed. We engage with companies through our English Works campaign. We are always trying to think about how to help businesses make the connection between investing in English skills for their employees, and seeing greater productivity and improved safety outcomes.

We don't just work with individual businesses; we also work with industry associations and groups like MassMEP. So it was natural for us to respond when Jim reached out.

Mark: We are a privately held, family-owned independent company. We have about 325-350 employees in two main facilities – in Massachusetts and Oklahoma. Our products help make sure that companies who can't afford to lose power, don't lose power. Like airports, banks, data centers, hospitals. It's business to business.

It was MassMEP and AIM – Associated Industries of Massachusetts – who came to us initially. They reached out to us regarding a 2-year grant from the Massachusetts Workforce Training Fund Program (WTFP), covering all aspects of Lean manufacturing and related concepts. Based on the composition of our workforce, we identified that ESOL would need to be a component of the training.

What prompted you to think about designing a class specifically for English learners?
Jim: Previously, when MassMEP has done work in areas like Fall River, Lowell, or Boston [that have large immigrant populations] we've always had to tap into a [bilingual] person at the company to translate some of the concepts we're trying to train on. It was cumbersome and I'm not really sure how effective it was. Employers want to have their [English learner] employees involved in training but sometimes they shy away from sending them because they're not sure the message is getting through.

We were offering this Lean 101 8-hour introductory session. For that training, there was a lot of communication that was necessary: interaction with the instructor, lecture, and so on – and we were just not sure that the message was getting through to the participants who were English learners.

So then we thought about ESOL programming as kind of an on-ramp to the Lean training. In general, ESOL is a time commitment for a company – it can take 6 months to a year for a worker to gain a level in their language skills. While that's great, it's also time-consuming if what you want is just for someone to get up to speed enough to be able to understand Lean.
I bounced the idea of a Lean ESOL class off of Franklin and he liked the idea. ENB had a person who they recommended who could help us put it together, and that's how this whole project got started.

Why were partnerships necessary for Russelectric to engage with this project?
Mark: The partnership with MassMEP is important because we're a relatively small business.  It's not practical for us to design and launch entire training programs – that's just not what we do. We do very much have top-down support for this project, from the CEO and CFO on down. I report directly to the CFO.

In terms of establishing our relationship with English for New Bostonians, I went to the annual awards breakfast that ENB puts on. It was a fantastic event -- very uplifting, inspirational, professionally run. So that made a good impression on me. They had good stories and examples of other companies they'd worked with.

Knowing that we were working with experienced partners helped convince us that this was a good use of company time and resources.

What does the class entail?
Mark: There are about 10 classes, at two hours per class. The classes are held from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and employees get paid for their time.  The reaction to the class has been quite favorable.

What are the key differences between Pre-Lean ESOL and a regular English class?
Jim: I can't stress this enough – this is not a replacement for a traditional ESOL program. I don't want companies to think that. [Rather], it's a class that makes sense for workers to take before they start their Lean journey. It allows them to conceptually understand the key points of Lean, learn some specialized vocabulary, and participate in the improvement process.

What drives employers to work with you on training?
Jim: Over the years, MassMEP has served thousands of businesses in Massachusetts, of which 80 percent have fewer than 100 employees. These companies aren't large enough to have [extensive] in-house training resources. MassMEP is an important resource for them because we can look at the training needs across a range of small companies and develop programs that meet their needs.

We're very fortunate that our state is very supportive of this type of programming. Massachusetts has a fund that is paid for through a tax on unemployment insurance – the Workforce Training Fund. It allows employers to receive grants to support training for incumbent workers, with greater weight given to projects that boost skills and opportunities for lower-skill or low-wage workers. We often work with businesses to design training that can be supported by this fund.

How was this project funded?
Jim: As an organization, we're set up as a nonprofit, and our funding comes from the US Department of Commerce, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and fee-for-service training programs. For this project, MassMEP funded all of the program development and paid for a curriculum developer to work with ENB.

It took us about a year to develop. It was constantly tweaked. We ran a pilot at a company that was interested in Lean training, but hesitant to begin it, because about 20% of their workforce was not fluent in English. After the ESOL pilot ended, production workers in the pilot class shared valuable feedback with us -- such advising us to use more videos – and were able to successfully move on to the regular Lean training with their native-born co-workers

Franklin: ESOL training for immigrant workers is one of the top priorities for the Workforce Training Fund; that, coupled with the fact that many of these limited English speaking employees are currently in low-skills positions, puts the Pre-Lean ESOL program in total alignment with the mission of the Fund to upskill our state workforce.

How are you measuring success? What's next for this project?
Mark: At the worker level, it's primarily observational. We are judging this as part of the overall Lean training. If we see ESOL participants being able to participate on equal footing with their [non-ESOL] coworkers, that's a good sign.

As part of our broader Lean training activities, we do have some specific outcomes we have to report to the state about operational efficiencies and cost savings and so forth.  We are also considering doing individual performance evaluations.

Jim: Since our initial pilot class, we have implemented the curriculum with two other companies, and it's going well. We're confident that we can do it well now – it's not a pilot any more.

We've also gotten the support of the Massachusetts Secretary of Labor and the Commonwealth Corporation, which oversees the Workforce Training Fund, which is really helpful as we think about continuing to expand.

Franklin: In terms of measuring success, the first thing we do is to assess the current ESOL level of each potential student. At Russelectric, this evaluation determined that we needed to organize the employees in two groups, low-intermediate and intermediate. This helped the instructor to adjust the curriculum to better serve the two levels.

We also do a general evaluation at the end of the course. At Russelectric, 31 employees participated in the program, and they gave an average score of 4.6 out of 5 to the question: Can I use this knowledge at my job? The bottom line is, you can see how their newly gained confidence enables them to contribute their own ideas to their company's Lean process improvement.

What lessons does this project have for other employers?
Mark: I would say that the Pre-Lean ESOL class worked because it was fully incorporated into everything else we were trying to do with Lean training. It wasn't a stand-alone thing.
Plus, we know our workforce. Demographically, we're diverse – our workers are Hispanic, Southeast Asian, Cape Verdean, and more. We knew that if the Lean training was going to succeed we had to make sure everyone was prepared to participate.

Thinking about other employers, I would say that if you're a small business and you don't have time to develop a whole new training curriculum, reaching out to partners like your state's MEP and organizations like English for New Bostonians can help. This is what they specialize in, and that leaves us free to do our jobs.

What lessons does this project have for other Manufacturing Extension Partnerships?
Jim: Well, of course, while there are MEPs in all fifty states, their local contexts are different. But in general, I think this project demonstrates how good policies like the Workforce Training Fund can be combined with strong partners who have specialized expertise to help small and mid-sized businesses solve their training issues.

As I said, it's a tight labor market. Everybody's trying to find good workers.  Sometimes the worker you need is already on your payroll – they just need a little boost, and training can provide that boost.

What lessons does this project have for adult education and workforce policy advocates?
Franklin: It doesn't matter which end you start with – whether you are thinking about how to help immigrant workers build their skills, or how to help small businesses find the talent they need. In both cases, you can create a win-win. Partnerships are what make it possible.

And then, once you get a good partnership going, you have to tell the story! Policymakers need to hear about how important education and training investments are, especially for small businesses. Whether it is federal policymakers hearing about why MEPs are important, or state policymakers hearing about incumbent worker training funds, you have to show how their ideas are working in the real world. Everybody likes to hear a success story.

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