New Program Opens Doors for Employees With Limited English Proficiency


New Program Opens Doors for Employees With Limited English Proficiency

Language barriers in the workplace sometimes contribute to low productivity, high turnover and workplace injuries. OU’s Center for English as a Second Language is working to eliminate those issues and help employees with limited English skills increase their earning potential through its new Workplace English program.

Workplace English, offered through OU CESL, provides English language instruction and cultural training tailored to a company’s specific needs. In addition to learning how to communicate in the workplace, participants learn how to better understand company benefits, be more aware of safety procedures, learn basic computer literacy and improve their overall intercultural and communication skills specific to their industry while on the job.

“We’re not just a basic ESL program showing up at your site. We are industry- and job-specific. We like to assess a business’ specific concerns or challenges and use their own materials as our training guides. Each company we work with will have a different, unique curriculum.” - Jaime Ladd

“This workplace English program is different than any other workplace English program in the country,” said Jaime Ladd, ESL program developer for the OU Extended Campus Office of Business Development. “We’re not just a basic ESL program showing up at your site. We are industry- and job-specific. We like to assess a business’ specific concerns or challenges and use their own materials as our training guides. Each company we work with will have a different, unique curriculum.”

It was personal experience that first made Ladd aware of a need for such a program. While working in the industrial development and maintenance industry, she visited oil rigs and manufacturing floors. She often heard supervisors and foremen say their jobs would be easier if there weren’t a language barrier.

“I would go out onsite and travel to all of these places,” Ladd said. “One thing I kept seeing over and over were instances where a person would shout out to someone, and they weren’t understanding English. I saw a pattern. It’s really a safety issue when there’s a language barrier.”

A phone conversation with Jorge Deluca, compliance director for Oklahoma’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office, backed up what she was seeing. Deluca shared statistics on workplace injuries and fatalities for Oklahoma and told her he believed language barriers do indeed factor into those numbers.

Ladd then reached out to the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance to see who would be a good candidate for piloting a workplace English program. She was connected with M-D Building Products in Oklahoma City, the nation’s leading manufacturer of weather stripping, and they became the program’s first client.

“M-D wanted employees to be able to come in, read the job boards and move up in the company,” Ladd said. “They also wanted employees to better understand the company’s benefits and take advantage of them, as well as integrate cross-culturally and feel comfortable asking questions and addressing concerns with the human resources office.”

Ladd and lead CESL instructor Hilary Kirk sorted through the company’s job listings, benefits, safety procedures and other materials. Using those documents, Kirk spent about a month developing a curriculum that addressed M-D’s specific needs before finally launching the program in July.

The employees, most of whom had no formal English language instruction in their home countries and little formal instruction at all, were divided into two groups. They attended class either at the end of their shift or just before. 

Kirk spent 12 weeks traveling to M-D four days a week, teaching them everything from tornado and fire drills to how to use their insurance cards and take advantage of other company benefits.

“For the true beginners, I believe the Workplace English program was something of a revelation. They were in a context where they could not only understand English, but also use it themselves,” Kirk said. “Instead of English being an intimidating barrier, it became a source of satisfaction and fun.”

The result was employees who felt more confident in their ability to speak English, use it in their personal lives and practice it at work. One employee became so confident he decided to take the forklift driver test, Ladd said, adding that many English speakers have to take the test more than once before passing.

“He passed it the first time. Now he’s earning more money and, essentially, that’s a move up for him,” Ladd said. “If you talk to him, he’ll attribute it to the class.”

Another employee was finally able to communicate with her grandson in English after finishing the program.

“Her grandson had been so sad that she couldn’t talk to him in English,” Ladd said. “Now she can.”

The class also helped break down cultural barriers. Kirk said at the beginning of the program, employees of the same nationality already knew each other, but there were no existing friendships between employees who spoke different first languages.

“Over the course of the program, employees in the same class became friends, regardless of their first language,” Kirk said, adding that the whole experience was very rewarding.

“I felt as if the classes were really making a difference in their lives,” she said. “They were overwhelmingly appreciative of me and also of the company for providing them the opportunity.”

For more information on the Workplace English Program, including how to bring a program to your business, visit the Workplace English website at wpe.pacs.ou.edu or email Jaime Ladd at jladd@ou.edu.

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Tami Althoff

Tami Althoff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is a reporter with more than 20 years’ experience working for newspapers, including The Oklahoman. She has covered everything from breaking news to local music and art. She loves sports, especially OU football and basketball games, where she often embarrasses her children by yelling too loudly.