Businesses in all industry sectors are exhausting potential avenues for talent as they struggle to fill their workforces. Many employers have finally turned their attention to a demographic that Wendy Falb has promoted for decades.
“It’s like employers have (found) religion finally — they’re seeing what we’ve always seen,” said Falb, who serves as the executive director for the West Michigan Literacy Center. “They’re like, ‘Oh my god, there is a whole other talent pipeline here,’ or ‘Wow, there are people in my own company that I can upskill,’ and really see the value of what we’re doing.”
Falb and the West Michigan Literacy Center provide contextualized English classes that are developed to eliminate barriers between non-English-speaking workers and employment.
The center was one of the first entities in the country to launch a program of this nature when starting it in the early 2000s. The program took a dip with the recession in 2008 but has slowly built back, aided by the fact that many industries are desperate for labor. Falb said many of the center’s existing partners have become more active in the program while a new wave of companies have inquired about it.
The center partners with a wide range of local employers and employment agencies, meeting with managers, foremen and all of the other stakeholders around a particular job to create a custom curriculum.
“With adult literacy, language acquisition is much more effective and impactful and desirable for adults if it is contextualized to immediate needs in their life,” Falb said. “For employers, it’s the most practical tool to break down immediate barriers around communication or safety or innovation.
“What happens when people don’t have strong linguistics skills? The type of innovation they see, they can’t even share.”
The language barrier not only holds some prospects back from entering the workforce, but it also makes it difficult for non-English-speaking workers to rise up in the ranks. This training is designed to help learners get jobs and progress within those careers.
A 2005 study by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that people who spoke a language other than English at home were less likely to be employed and less likely to enjoy full-time employment if they did have a job.
The study went on to show that people who did not primarily speak English made an average of $5,600 less a year than their English-speaking counterparts despite working the same, or similar, jobs.
“We also have folks who have degrees and certifications and experience in other countries, and those things don’t translate” because of the language barrier, Falb said. “We have a learner right now who was a chemical engineer in Mexico and she came here because her daughter needed special heart surgery and now she’s cleaning houses. … People come in at the entry-level job and they just stay at that job even though they’re a great worker with tremendous assets.”
Cascade Township-based Tier 1 automotive supplier Lacks Enterprises Inc. is just one organization that has worked with the West Michigan Literacy Center to provide this tailored form of ESL (English as a second language) classes.
While the two have formed a long-term partnership, they have had the language programming on hold for almost two years — first because of COVID-19 and now because of workforce shortages that make it difficult to gather workers into a classroom setting.
Gabrielle Calkins, director of training at Lacks, said the company has long recognized immigrants as a viable way to add not just bodies but also greatly needed diversity to the company’s workforce. The Literacy Center has helped bridge that gap.
“We find that immigrant populations are some of our most loyal employees,” Calkins said. “So it’s been more than worth it to spend the time to get the folks in the door and teach them how to do the job. They do it, they’re loyal, reliable and generally good employees. Right now we’re finding that we’re hiring out of the various populations more and more.”
While Lacks uses certified trainers that allow non-English-speaking individuals to transition into production roles, Calkins admitted that workers who don’t speak English often find it hard to progress.
“It can be very challenging to promote those folks to higher levels, which we would like to do so those populations can see themselves progressively at higher levels of the company,” she said. “As with any industry, we rely heavily on language. It’s a very technical set of things we do. A lot of those technical terms don’t translate into 46 different languages or dialects.”
A spotlight on DEI
Zeeland-based Tier 1 auto supplier Gentex Corp., which supplies digital vision, connected car, dimmable glass and fire protection technologies, has taken even more drastic steps to help non-English-speaking workers adapt to the job — specifically those who speak Spanish.
Recognizing that the majority of non-English-speaking residents in the area speak Spanish, Gentex has started production lines reserved solely for Spanish-speaking workers.
Candidates to this program will find that everything from the application and interview to the orientation and training are all conducted in Spanish.
Gentex currently operates multiple Spanish-speaking production lines, which employ roughly 70 people.
Daniel Quintanilla, director of talent acquisition for Gentex, said this was just the beginning of a greater overall diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) movement by the company, and that it hopes to develop similar programs for workers who might speak other languages, too.
“The goal will be not to just have these Spanish-speaking lines, but an inclusive environment throughout all of Gentex where people could move anywhere,” Quintanilla said. “Maybe you learn English and move to a different line, or we create a process where it doesn’t matter where you work, we can accommodate anyone.”
Not only does the program help create inroads with the local Spanish-speaking population — in which many workers find themselves referring family and friends to the job — but it’s also been a valuable resource in combating workforce shortages that have plagued manufacturing.
“It wasn’t the reason why we did it, but it was an unexpected benefit of doing it. We have another avenue of bringing people in. We need people just like everyone else, and we have a lot of openings,” Quintanilla said.
Falb echoed the sentiment, adding that more companies thinking about DEI is a silver lining to the current labor shortage.
“The great thing about this labor market is that it kind of puts market forces behind equity and inclusion issues,” Falb said. “While (businesses) get a much richer, joyful culture for everyone, their bottom line is affected, too, because it’s a retention piece and it’s a recruitment piece. Employers are very aware of the cost of losing people and aware of the cost of getting people in the door. It’s really wonderful to see this come together.”