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Community colleges address the workplace language barrier

By Jeanne Maloney and Ann Rubenzahl


New York has a rich history of welcoming immigrants, and is one of the six states in the U. S. that are considered traditional immigrant destinations.  New York is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the nation and a historic gateway for immigrants from all over the world.

Immigrants entering the U.S. face a range of issues, including their ability to speak English and experience social, economic and cultural integration.  Some arrive with advanced credentials and a strong employment history; others have functional English skills, are employed, but lack the language skills required for advancement; many others have minimal English language skills and may have problems obtaining employment.

More than one in five New Yorkers are immigrants, and many are contributing to economic development in our local communities.  Recent data indicates that the sales receipts of New York businesses owned by Latinos and Asians totaled more than $68.7 billion and these businesses employed more than 310,000 people.

While many immigrants have experienced success in the U.S. and in New York, many are still struggling to be fully integrated into the fabric of our communities.  The largest barrier for many is the ability to capably speak English.

It is reported that 61.6 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home.  Of these individuals, 25.1 million, or 41 percent, are considered Limited English Proficient.  In New York, those identified as limited English proficient account for 13 percent of the state’s population.

The limited English-proficient population is generally less educated and is more likely to live in poverty when compared with the English-proficient population.  Men with limited English skills typically engage in careers such as construction, natural resources, and maintenance; women who are limited English proficient are typically employed in service and personal-care occupations.

In order to advance in the U.S. workforce, immigrants must learn English.  An effective method for English language skill acquisition is a contextualized approach that utilizes the vocabulary and concepts associated with the workplace. The I-BEST  program — Integrated Basic Education and Skill Training — developed in the state of Washington has become the model for combining community college-based career and technical education/workforce programs with adult basic education and/or language acquisition.

In the case of language acquisition, English is integrated into career preparation course work.  This approach makes the English language relevant for participants and enhances the likelihood that they will earn a needed workforce credential.  This integration can also accelerate the time that it takes for a person to acquire the language of the workplace, earn a workforce credential, and seek employment.

Community colleges in Texas, Maryland, and other locations have replicated Washington’s I-BEST approach.  Here at Westchester Community College, contextualization of workplace language is occurring in a grant-funded program in Peekskill and Brewster.  Supported by state funding, ESL for Work and Life courses enable individuals with limited English proficiency to develop the competencies of work and life in the U.S. by engaging in activities such as completing an on-line job application, preparing for an interview, seeking information on the Internet, and learning customer service skills.  In the context of “need to know” information, participants are accelerating their English acquisition while obtaining critical work readiness skills.

While many non-native speakers are pursuing the language and work readiness skills necessary to enter the workforce, others are employed, but may need additional language skills to advance in their jobs.  Workplace English language programs enable employees to gain additional language skills in the context of their employment settings.

A successful national model that utilizes this approach is the English Under the Arches Program developed by McDonald’s.  This English language learning program provides McDonald’s  employees with the English needed to communicate effectively and confidently with customers and staff and position themselves for job advancement.

Community colleges across the nation are also offering workplace English language programs, offered at the participants’ workplace and utilizing the language, specific vocabulary, and processes associated with their jobs and the work setting.  Through contracts with employers, Westchester Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and many others are addressing employers’ needs to assist employees to further develop their English language skills.

These programs often include analysis by the community college of the specific English vocabulary needed by employees in their jobs, development of curriculum based on that language, and meetings with the participants’ managers to help the managers provide ongoing coaching for employees to foster English usage throughout the workday and after the course has ended.

The range of educational background of immigrants is large and diverse, and nationally it is estimated that there are 7.2 million college-educated immigrants.  They are seeking to work in the careers that they pursued in their country of origin or pursue additional education to qualify for a similar or new career in the U. S.  Of those college-educated immigrants, 28 percent lack proficiency in the English language.

Other barriers faced by skilled immigrants include a lack of recognition of their foreign academic credentials, and the challenges associated with earning a parallel professional credential in the U.S.  The inability of skilled immigrants to overcome these barriers can result in unemployment or underemployment.  Some refer to this as “brain waste;” skilled immigrants are unable to enter the workforce at an appropriate level, and the result is a waste of human capital and ultimately a loss to employers, local communities, and the regional economy.

Community colleges can play an important role in assisting skilled immigrants by providing needed English language skills and alternative educational pathways, including access to short-term workforce programs and programs to update key job skills.  Employers who have an opportunity to consider skilled immigrants when filling job vacancies may find individuals with appropriate background and skills, but lacking in English language or work support skills. Westchester Community College and other community colleges offer training programs targeted at employer and employee needs such as appropriate language for making presentations, meeting protocol, and other specific workplace language needs.

As the demographics and needs of our communities evolve, community colleges across the country are prepared to work in collaboration with business and community partners to assist immigrants and all prospective students to access the education and training required to enter and advance in the workplace and create a pipeline of employees to address regional workforce needs.

Jeanne Maloney is assistant dean of continuing education and workforce development at Westchester Community College.  She can be reached at 914-606-6799 or jeanne.maloney@sunywcc.edu. 

Ann Rubenzahl is assistant dean of continuing education and workforce development at Westchester Community College.  She can be reached at 914-606-6618 or ann.rubenzahl@sunywcc.edu.


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