Improving Workplace Opportunities for Limited English-Speaking Workers: An Overview of Practice in the Manufacturing Sector

This resource reports on the second phase of findings of a multi-phase project undertaken by The Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and Jobs for the Future (JFF). The report provides an overview of current practices for training and educating non-native speakers in the manufacturing sector; identifies exemplary programs; identifies factors that inhibit or support educational and training programs; and identifies recommendations for stakeholders.

Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
National Association of Manufacturers
Jobs for the Future
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This resource reports on the second phase of findings of a multi-phase project undertaken by The Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and Jobs for the Future (JFF). The first phase consisted of surveys and an extensive literature review of research on how to best prepare immigrant workers for the U.S. workplace. In this second phase their goal was to identify best practices for developing ESL and training skills in the immigrant working communities. With this in mind they wanted to provide an overview of current practices for training and educating non-native speakers in the manufacturing sector; identify exemplary programs; identify factors that inhibit or support educational and training programs; and identify recommendations for stakeholders. Their research found that a majority of employers do little to support language skills of frontline workers; training is sporadic, disconnected from the actual work setting, and unsystematic. In this report they describe characteristics of and factors affecting exemplary practice. Characteristics of effective work-based training are that it must be: mutually beneficial, sustainable, scalable, and replicable. Factors that support exemplary on-site language and skill training are: practices that promote employee participation in workplace ESL classes, support for third-party involvement in the training, and union support for training. Each of these topics is described in depth and supported by concrete examples from the field.

What the experts say

The resource is a report of a descriptive study of workplaces that are incorporating ESL instruction to various degrees.  It is most useful to adult educators delivering workplace literacy or technical training programs and to employers or employer associations.  The authors provide examples that are appropriate for community colleges, private for profit trainers and literacy providers. Furthermore, they describe a variety of ways to fund programs.  Four exemplary sites were selected as case studies and are featured in depth in this report.  In addition to the descriptions of how the ESL programs are implemented at the four workplaces, contact names are provided so that the reader can follow up for further details. Furthermore, the resource is written in clear language making it possible to comprehend the main points with a fairly quick reading. 

The report characterizes four features of exemplary ESL training practices in manufacturing:

  • The program benefitted both the employees and the companies.
  • The program was sustainable and not just a once and done project with no connection to the company’s overall business plan.
  • The program could expand to more workers and more sites.
  • The program was replicable and could be duplicated without making big changes.

The resource does a good job of summarizing the lessons learned as well as the difficulties of implementing ESL in the workplace.  The case studies provide good information for programs interested in developing their ability to provide customized workplace language instruction. Particularly noteworthy is the importance of establishing the ESL program as part of the business plan.  The authors point out that it should be seen as an integral part of an effective and profitable workplace.

The authors also point out the importance of tailoring the ESL instruction to the workplace since employers are reluctant to provide traditional ESL instruction on the clock.  Some of the issues they address are:

  • Finding the right ESL provider, such as an adult education agency, as some educators lack the knowledge of how to contextualize instruction to the workplace 
  • Encountering problems when a mismatch occurs between AEFLA’s standards and relevance to the workplace (e.g., in the testing instruments) 
  • Needing instructors that understand the corporate culture as well as teaching methods

Another useful feature is the discussion of factors inhibiting exemplary practices including:

  • confusion about legislation that funds adult literacy programs
  • limited funding
  • level of flexibility states may or may not have
  • perception of capacity in the field to develop work customized training

An extensive list of references is provided for the reader.  Useful statistics are included that could assist the reader in writing a proposal for funding.


  • The resource appears to be written primarily from the employer’s point of view.  The motivations of the immigrant workers (and what they might want from the classes) are not explored.  In fact, some employers mentioned that participation in the ESL classes had to be accompanied by incentives such as pay or full-time employment because otherwise immigrant workers might not attend.
  • Although the usefulness of business associations for raising awareness among employers is acknowledged, the importance of an onsite business “champion” is not mentioned.  However, the resource is very useful to both employers and intermediary agencies (e.g., adult educators) in presenting the importance, benefits, and obstacles of offering customized ESL in the workplace.
  • Of concern is the relevance to today’s employment situation. In 2006, unemployment was significantly lower and employers were hiring immigrants because they had to fill jobs. How relevant is it today with unemployment at 10%?
  • Details, such as how an employer might calculate the return on investment from customized ESL instruction, are not provided.  Readers could, however, follow up with the contact people listed for each site.
Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research:

Initial interviews with 15 firms that reported hiring immigrant workers to identify salient issues, extended interviews to 65 employers using the tool developed from initial interviews.  From these interviews, researchers extracted criteria for analyzing and evaluating employer training practices.  Researchers identified six firms that met the best practices criteria.  Furthermore, they conducted focus groups (mix of employers, workforce development providers, funders of immigrant training) in three major manufacturing cities to identify a broad base of issues pertaining to immigrant employee training.

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