According to a research report by The Brookings Institution, nearly one in 10 working-age U.S. adults is considered limited English proficient (LEP), a term used to describe people who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English. The report also found that high-skilled immigrants who are not proficient in English are twice as likely to work in “unskilled” jobs that require low levels of education or training, compared to those who are proficient in English.

With The Great Resignation leaving companies scrambling to retain talent, and the talent pool continuing to shrink, companies that offer English language learning will have a competitive advantage in the job market — and a more diverse and higher-performing workforce.

A Personal and Professional Benefit

Today’s employees want to work for companies that are human-centric. Whether it’s embracing flexible work policies to support working parents or launching an employee resource group (ERG) for people of color, when employees feel that they are supported and valued as people first and employees second, they are more likely to stay.

English language learning is a “huge perk” that can attract diverse talent, says Eloise Goldman, vice president of public relations at Cambria, a major quartz surfaces manufacturing provider that launched an English language learning program in 2015. With 300 of the 650 employees at Cambria’s manufacturing facility being foreign-born, Goldman says that while the program was a significant investment on the company’s part, it has been pivotal in attracting and retaining skilled talent.

Cambria’s program offers employees free on-site English classes that they can attend during the workday, meaning that they not only don’t have to use their days off for learning but also get paid their regular wage as they learn. “It’s a huge work and life perk, and we can see that many people who have completed the program were able to move up in the organization and [gain] life skills that will help them no matter where they work,” Goldman says.

Kamille Kolar, Cambria’s English as a Second Language (ESL) director and first ESL instructor, says that although many learners have been promoted since improving their English, career advancement is just one of the program’s benefits. For example, Kolar says that some of the program’s participants report that they no longer need a translator at doctor’s appointments, and tasks like filling out forms have become easier. This is something that Julie Tolzman, a Cambria employee who is currently participating in the program, has experienced firsthand. While her English skills made it difficult to communicate with others when she first started in her role, she can now “talk to other people with confidence” thanks to the ESL courses.

Improved communication and collaboration are two key benefits of helping employees improve their English, says Katie Brown, chief education officer at EnGen, a language upskilling provider. This offers businesses benefits such as reduced accidents on the job (because workers can better understand health and safety instructions and protocol), increased knowledge sharing and more effective relationships between managers and their direct reports.

Unlocking a New Talent Pool

Gone are the days when skilled talent was just a job posting away. Now, companies are having to find creative ways to recruit (and retain) talent. This is especially true in industries like manufacturing, where filling vacant production roles is an ongoing challenge.

Tyson Foods is another major manufacturing company that has invested in English language learning to support its many foreign-born employees. In fact, Anson Green, senior manager for economic opportunity at Tyson Foods, says, “It’s not uncommon to go into a plant in the middle of Kansas and have 25 languages and 30 countries represented.” Nearly 60 Tyson Foods plant locations across the U.S. have partnered with local community colleges to provide free ESL education to employees. “If we want to have 3,000 workers in a plant making food, this is how we have to do it,” Green says. There’s simply not going to be 3,000 English-speaking candidates available in the local talent pool.

Unfortunately, “low-English” is often a proxy for “low-skilled,” which undermines the immigrant and refugee workforce’s potential, Green says. In reality, many immigrants have high levels of education and training: The Public Policy Institute of California found that in 2019, 52% of working-age immigrants (ages 25-64) who lived in the U.S. for five years or less had bachelor’s or graduate degrees.

Even if immigrants often have obtained skills and credentials from their home countries, if they aren’t proficient in English, they are often unable to put them to use in the U.S., Brown says. “The quickest way to help [immigrants] get the skills they need to participate in a job that has the potential for upward economic mobility … is to teach them English.”

How to Get Started

As with any training effort, it’s important to roll out English language courses strategically. Here are three tips to get started.

1.) Start With a Needs Assessment

Conducting a needs analysis is the first step in ensuring a successful language learning program. During this phase, you should:

  • Determine which employees are not proficient in English: Have employees take a brief test to assess their English skills. Cambria, for example, opted for a 10–15-minute English assessment that then placed learners into beginner, intermediate or advanced categories. Note that it’s important to assess learners in multiple formats (i.e., written, oral, verbal and even job shadowing), as Green says that some learners from different countries may be unfamiliar with standardized testing, which can lead to inaccurate test results.
  • Identify the type and level of English skills employees need to get promoted: Different jobs require different English skills, Brown says. If the next step in an employee’s career requires reading technical documents in English, focus on developing their reading skills. If the next step is moving into a managerial position, focus on developing their verbal and interpersonal English skills.
  • Consider the best way to deliver the training, whether that means outsourcing or developing an in-house program with the help of training tools and technologies.

2.) Connect With the Experts

If you can’t have an English instructor on site, consider connecting with local community adult education programs that have the expertise to deliver effective programs, Green suggests. Community ESL programs are often free, but companies can support their efforts by giving employees time off to learn and by providing supplemental training materials.

3.) Customize It

Effective language learning is contextualized and available on demand. EnGen, for instance, takes “authentic, real content” in English and delivers it to learners in bite-sized chunks “at the right moment, at the right time and on the right topic, Brown says. For instance, lessons specific to the customer service industry include examples of high-quality customer service interactions in English.

We’re at a moment in the U.S. when “everyone is talking about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Brown says. However, immigrants, refugees and non-English speakers are “systematically left out of those initiatives.” English language learning can help companies drive equitable work and develop skilled talent that can advance business outcomes for years to come.