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One Workforce—Many Languages: Many U.S. employers are investing in English classes to upgrade immigrant workers’ skills.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

On a steamy July afternoon, Antonia Diaz makes her way to a worktable in the bowels of a dusty construction pit outside Washington, D.C., and heaves a circular saw onto a plywood sheet. With her eyes fixed on the wood, she painstakingly makes the first cut in her latest project--construction of a handrail for a dangerous open stairwell her co-workers use to move supplies.
"My work makes it safe for everyone," she says in accented English. "Otherwise, someone could fall and break a foot or a leg. I'm so proud of what I do."

It's a claim she could not have made five years ago, when she immigrated to the United States from Honduras speaking only Spanish and not knowing a miter box from a whipsaw.

Diaz, a brawny one-time truck driver, landed a job as a laborer at Miller & Long, a Maryland construction company, shortly after arriving in the country. Within a few weeks, she began attending free English classes that the company offered to its mostly Spanish-speaking workers on Saturdays.

She also entered Miller & Long's carpentry apprenticeship, where she was required to study textbooks and other technical materials available only in English. ›

"The teacher would say, 'I'm sorry, guys, but this is the U.S. and we speak English,' " she recalls.
Three years later, her studies paid off. She passed her carpentry certification exam--offered only in English--and was promoted to Miller & Long's safety team at nearly twice her starting salary. She began dating a co-worker who only speaks English. The couple is now raising their 2-year-old daughter.

Contemporary Tower of Babel?
Diaz's experience contrasts sharply with the original Bible story of Babel, where a chaotic mix of languages was mankind's punishment for attempting to build a tower to heaven. The ancient parable is mostly about arrogance. But viewed in the context of the diverse U.S. workforce, the story takes on contemporary significance.

Today, foreign-born workers make up nearly 16 percent of the domestic labor force--a proportion demographers predict will increase as the number of U.S.-born workers decreases and immigration continues.

Not surprisingly, growth in the foreign-born population has gone hand-in-hand with growing diversity of languages. The number of people living in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home grew by 38 percent in the 1980s and by 47 percent in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While the general population age 5 and older grew by one-fourth from 1980 to 2000, the number who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled.

Demographic changes in the workforce reflect the immigration boom.

"Just to fill positions and have growth, employers are relying more heavily on the non-English-speaking labor force," says Jerry Rubin, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a Boston-based nonprofit that offers English language classes as part of its job training services.

English classes for immigrants once were the province of public schools, local government and humanitarian agencies. Now, faced with a Babel of languages on shop floors and construction sites, in hotels and restaurants, and in other low-wage workplaces, many employers say providing English language training to their workers has become a strategic imperative. "You don't need English to work at Miller & Long," says Myles Gladstone, the company's vice president of human resources, who is fluent in English and Spanish. "But you do need English to get ahead."
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