For many Americans, one of the most frustrating things when it comes to immigration is whether or not immigrants are learning English. In fact, if I had a nickel for every time someone yelled “why don’t they learn English!?”, well, the National Immigration Forum would be a very wealthy organization.
To some degree, I understand the frustration. If we are on the phone, at the store or at work, we want to be able to clearly communicate with people
A few years back, we realized that an estimated 1 in 10 working-age adults in the United States have limited English skills. Severely limiting career advancement and business growth. The retail sector alone employs about 11 % of all limited English proficient workers — nearly 1.5 million.
So, with the support of the Walmart Foundation and JPB Foundation, we partnered with Miami Dade College and the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education to launch Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce. This first-of-its-kind initiative provides contextualized English language learning for retail employees.
Over two years we trained nearly 1,000 employees of major retailers in three cities: Kroger in Houston, Whole Foods in Houston and the New York City metro area, and Publix in Miami.
In year two of the program, as a result of increased English language skills, 37% of participants were promoted and 73% were on track to higher wages. 93% of participants reported improved job performance. And 89% of managers reported increased store productivity.
So, as we started year three, I spent an afternoon at Westchester Community College in New York with a dozen Whole Foods staff as they improved their English language skills.
As I think back to that afternoon, there are a few things that stick in my mind: how focused the students were on the lessons of the day, the thoughtfulness and compassion of the teacher, and, most importantly, students’ warm smiles of accomplishment when they — or their classmates — answered a question correctly.
In this day and age, where immigration news can be downright ugly, it was an inspiring afternoon.
I spoke with Mark Wilkins and Enza Quinones — Whole Foods training staff who worked across the region. They told me this classes are not just an exercise in customer relations — they are transforming the lives of the employees.
“So many of our team members work with heart; they do so much for Whole Foods Market,” Mark told me. “But they were limited — with a lot of the communication skills — from advancing. For me, when I found out about the program, I was like ‘yeah, we’ve got to jump onto this.”
After class was over, and I shared some of the incredible home cooked empanadas and dulce de leche cookies students had brought, I had a chance to speak with a couple of the participants. I am so grateful Maria, originally from Colombia, and Velaria, who arrived from Ecuador, shared their stories with me for this week’s Only in America podcast episode.
“[Before], I didn’t feel confident to speak the language; I felt afraid to speak,” Velaria said. “In America, we are a rich culture. This is good for us so we can interact with each other.”
And this Friday, Whole Foods students from across the region are graduating …. congratulations to all.
A big thank you to Walmart and JPB Foundations for their support; our partners at Miami Dade College and Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education. And, most importantly, thank you to the teachers for their dedication.
You can find out more about the program, Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce, at our website.
You can listen to the full episode here: https://immigrationforum.org/article/the-power-of-language-supporting-immigrant-workers/