The Language of Cooperation

February 27, 2004

Four book-manufacturing companies in Ann Arbor, Michigan, shared a common problem. Some of their employees spoke so little English that they couldn’t understand the books they were binding, read safety signs or fully communicate with coworkers. Yet none of the small bookmakers could afford to launch an on-site English-as-a-second-language program alone. Their solution: pool money to fund a single program that would be developed through a local group, Washtenaw Literacy. Some of the companies also agreed to change their pay policies so that the students and tutors, who were recruited from employee ranks, were paid for the time they spent in the learning sessions.

    Book manufacturing in Ann Arbor is a century-old industry, and the book companies began meeting in 2000 to find ways to improve the profession’s image. First they ran joint newspaper ads to recruit workers, who were then in short supply. "We needed to have a basic level of trust and cooperation to put aside our competitive spirit," says Pam Lindberg, training manager at Malloy Inc., one of the book manufacturers that took part in the literacy program.

    Those meetings also revealed common communication problems. Some of Malloy’s 320 employees were Albanian-speakers from Kosovo, and others were West Africans who spoke tribal dialects and French. Another bookmaker, Edwards Brothers Inc., had among its 800 employees a sprinkling of people who spoke only Vietnamese or Chinese. The language barriers were compounded by cultural differences. At company potlucks and employee-recognition lunches, Malloy used to serve things like German potato salad with pork, unmindful that many of its West African employees were Muslims who didn’t eat pork. "Now we make sure there is food for everyone," Linberg says. "This experience has been eye-opening."

    For their ability to combine resources to create a unique program, the Michigan book producers, Washtenaw Literacy and the Washtenaw Development Council are the 2004 Optimas Award winners for Partnership.

    The ESL program began with a six-hour sensitivity- and communication-training session for tutors and supervisors. In one exercise, participants were given directions in a language they didn’t understand, so that they were more likely to identify with the frustration of their non-English-speaking colleagues. Each learner is matched up with one tutor. The tutors agreed to meet with the students for at least one hour a week for a minimum of six months. In most cases, the pairs got so involved that they met twice weekly. The program often expands beyond teaching language skills to helping students cope with personal business such as applying for a driver’s license. "This has been fantastic for everyone," Lindberg says. "The learners have become happier and more confident. The tutors have an opportunity to be in a leadership role."

    Since mid-2001, about 20 learning teams at the companies have gone through the program, with six still active. Lindberg estimates that the payroll cost is about $2,000 a year for each team, which she considers "next to nothing," given the results. Several of the ESL workers have earned promotions. Overall productivity and morale are improving. But it is the human payoff that is the most important to Lindberg. When Ali Berisha, an assistant printing-press operator, entered the program, he didn’t know all 26 letters of the English alphabet. Now he is using the company’s tuition-reimbursement program to attend a local community college.

Workforce Management, March 2004, pp. 49-50 -- Subscribe Now!