U.S. manufacturing facilities reflect that, for more than 2 centuries, the United States has been a melting pot of people with varied nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. But how does a company manage and train foreign-born workers who have limited English comprehension and job skills? The disparity in language and differences in culture can be as detrimental to a company’s profitability as a major production malfunction. Therefore, preventing a communication malfunction is critical.

Coming to America

The National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) The Skills Gap 2001 report details that as highly skilled Baby Boomers retire, manufacturers are forced to seek replacements among the growing immigrant population. Many of these immigrants lack adequate education, language and job skills. Ed Steffy, production manager at Arrow/Richey Electronics (Sun Valley, CA) has firsthand knowledge. "If your workforce can’t do the basic skills that you require, then you’re going to waste a lot of time retraining. You’re probably going to have a lot of defects, and your rework is going to increase," he says.

NAM suggests that U.S. immigration policy should include initiatives to meet the cultural, language and technical skill needs of immigrants, who are the main source of growth in the labor force. However, until the United States begins to acquire more highly skilled immigrant workers, manufacturers are doing more on-the-job education.

According to the report, more than half of the responding manufacturing companies spent more on training than they did 3 years ago. The need to keep pace with technology is the main reason for offering training.

Many manufacturers have noticed this increase in immigration and have set up in-house training and education programs. According to Mariah DeForest of Imberman and DeForest (Evanston, IL), a consulting firm, companies that don’t notice the shifting workforce may experience difficulty in motivating and retaining a loyal and productive workforce.

DeForest states that the typical American worker is a high school graduate who is anxious to get ahead. On the other hand, many Spanish-speaking workers come from poor families with rural backgrounds. In many cases, these recent immigrants send money back home to help other family members. "For many, their stays in the United States are merely temporary money-earning trips," says DeForest.

Assessing Employee Skills

To turn recent immigrants into productive and highly skilled workers, companies should assess workers’ skills and capabilities. This can be doubly hard when dealing with a multicultural workforce that has varying degrees of work skills, English-language skills and education.

The first skill to be assessed is the person’s command of English. Most companies require the individual to have a basic knowledge of English. At S&C Electric Co. (Chicago), the English-skills assessment begins when the person completes the employment application. "If they’re able to manage through that process, then we think they’ll have the skills that they’ll need to get started," says Gene Cottini, S&C’s manager of training services.

However, Bill Vogel, president of DeCardy Diecasting (Chicago) demands a bit more proof. Each potential employee must take two tests. One assesses math skills. Vogel believes an understanding of math is necessary to solve technical problems. The second test gauges the person’s ability to understand blueprints.

Cottini also stresses knowing basic English for safety purposes. "A basic command of English is certainly something that we feel is important.

Unlocking Employee Potential

Vogel has found that recent immigrants can be turned into productive, goal-oriented workers, once they understand that the company will invest the effort to help them achieve an objective. For those who are deficient in English, DeCardy offers English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. The company also offers training in blueprint reading, metrology and shop math.

"Our philosophy is that improving your math skills will assist you as an individual, as well as a worker. Improving your blueprint skills will assist you in developing your career, as well as developing your capability on the shop floor. People have had no problem with that. We feel that we have developed a system that has great value to these people because it enhances their earning power," says Vogel.

More experienced employees can take advantage of die-cast-specific training, including seminars sponsored by the North American Diecasting Association on preventive maintenance, diecast tooling and building better tools.

Cottini echoes the sentiment that immigrants can be very goal-oriented. "We have found that these folks are surprisingly motivated once they are given the jumpstart that they need," he says. "They are very appreciative of what’s been done for them. They haven’t always gotten the attention that they needed to get started to assimilate into our society."

To give its employees the jumpstart they need, S&C Electric offers a variety of programs. Like DeCardy Diecasting, the company offers ESL courses. However, the company has also instituted something innovative—Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL)—for those employees needing extra help before moving to more advanced training. "People from certain countries don’t come equipped with the fundamental classroom skills. So when you have this diversity of people, you have to serve the needs of the individuals. Certain people from different cultures and lands are going to need a little extra help, and these are people that we are drawing our population of employees from. This is a reality of our business," says Cottini.

VESL involves a three-component program. The program is for individuals who require additional help with their English skills prior to entering the company’s training programs. The first component is the VESL course, itself. Prior to entering a specific course, individuals are enrolled in VESL. While in the program, attendees focus on the subject matter that they will be studying, such as shop math. Attendees are assisted with the terms that they will need to understand to complete that particular course. When the student is capable of entering the specific course, he or she enters the regular course population.

The second component of the program involves mentoring. Individuals are assigned mentors from the floor—ideally from their own community—who will provide assistance. VESL’s third component is an open lab, where assistance is provided in the subject matter, terms and language.

Because more than 60 percent of S&C’s workforce is directly involved in fabrication, the majority of its training programs—such as shop mathematics, blueprint reading, metrology, quality control—are related to the machinists, tool technologists, punch press operators and sheet metal workers. S&C is also currently working on programs for assemblers that will be very similar. All require on-site classroom studies and are taught internally by a staff of 40 volunteer instructors from the technical community.

S&C expects employees to take two classes a year. A typical goal for a fabrication person would be completion of two classes a year, which are viewed as paid time.

Overcoming Obstacles

Nobody likes change; familiarity breeds comfort. Changes in routine can be disconcerting, especially for people new to a country and unfamiliar with the culture. How can a company encourage these employees to accept change gracefully? According to Ed Steffy, you can expect resistance to change if it is not handled well. "They won’t respond well to change if they don’t understand why you want them to change," he says. "You’re going into a group that also has a culture, which also has a working subculture. From that group, you are asking them to do things that they’re not familiar with or fully understand. You’re asking them to do this and to pick up on it in a pretty quick fashion."

Employers can take a cue from Bill Vogel. He emphasizes developing a company culture, where employees understand that learning how to do more than one job is in their best interest. Employees should understand that they are developing a company culture, along with specific tasks. They have to learn that as they have their own individual culture, the company has a culture.

"When we have a new idea or new plan, or do something in a different way, our people understand that is what it takes to be successful. We have to be changing, and they’ve seen so many changes within our small company. The company culture might be different, and it might be similar. We have to come to our [DiCardy Diecasting] culture from all the various cultures that we come from, and that is what makes us strong," says Vogel.

Gene Cottini believes that respect for the individual has to be foremost in the workplace. If the company has to expend extra effort to guide people through new processes, then that pays dividends in the long run in terms of people’s appreciation for what the company is doing. And this appreciation produces harmony in the workforce.

Vogel echoes the need for respect. "The first and the hardest thing is to simplify the training, and to have the patience to take the time. The next thing people must have is respect for other cultures. It just will not work if they don’t respect other cultures. If it isn’t there it is picked up on immediately and communication just doesn’t work. What we try to do is develop a positive culture. We want people to understand the reason why it is necessary and why the customer requires it," he says.