Breaking Down Language Barriers

New program at Whirlpool Corporation’s Amana plant operations helps employees hone English skills
Nov 9, 2021 10:15 AM ET
Adult ESL students and teacher

Whirlpool Corporation’s Amana, Iowa plant operations has instituted a program to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) to employees. The Human Resources leadership team at the plant felt that there were benefits to increasing English proficiency for employees as well as for Whirlpool Corp., such as less time required for training and instruction, along with fewer production errors and ultimately higher retention rates for employees. The program also drives engagement of their very diverse employee population (which includes a group of West African native French speakers, for example), creating an inclusive environment as part of Whirlpool Corporation’s dedication to Inclusion and Diversity in all of its operations.

Alex MacKenzie, who is a member of the Human Resources Leadership Development Program, was tasked with designing and deploying the ESL course at the Amana plant.

“Ultimately, Kirkwood Community College was the education partner selected to create an English course that improved English speaking and listening skills, with a focus on manufacturing vocabulary and safety, an introduction to time management, and elements to help build a multicultural, multilingual learning community,” said MacKenzie.

The course is provided under the Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education grant, a federal workforce training program that supports collaboration between corporations and educational institutions.

“The Kirkwood ESL supervisor and her curriculum developers toured the Amana plant and observed new hire orientation through a linguistic lens,” said MacKenzie. “With the partnership of the training department, HR, and operations, the Kirkwood ESL department analyzed common vocab words and verbiage across standard assembly work. Additionally, the curriculum was built from Amana’s new hire orientation material, employee policies, newsletters, and other Whirlpool Amana cultural content for integration into the education plan.”

The course meets three times per week for approximately eight weeks. English proficiency tests are completed both before and after the course to measure improvements in English reading and listening. Class lengths are an hour and a half and conducted either before or after an employees’ scheduled shift. The ESL instructors focused on a discussion-based approach with homework assignments assigned to practice comprehension, reading, and writing.

“The ESL program started in March of 2021 and ended May 2021 with 13 graduates from both first and second shifts,” said MacKenzie. “The majority of the first group, known as a ‘cohort,’ continued their English language education with Kirkwood’s free ESL course.” Fellow HR Leadership Development Program member Claire Guderjahn led the second cohort that began in July of 2021 and ended in September 2021. She continues to drive recruitment, strategy, and execution of the ESL program at Amana. Thirty graduates have already completed the program.

In addition to improving employee skill sets, this program has many other benefits.

“This program not only teaches English, but also provides information specific to Whirlpool,” explained Guderjahn. “Because some higher-paying jobs require an interview, this class teaches employees about the interview process, setting the foundation for a pipeline of diverse talent throughout the organization. This class also creates a social opportunity for English learners to meet people with both similar and different backgrounds. Most importantly, this class shows that Whirlpool’s leadership cares about and values its English-learning employees.”