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Industry Pitching In to Support Higher Ed ESL

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by Lois Elfman


At the request of companies within its community, Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania developed customized ESL programs designed to improve communication, increase employee retention and put workers on track for promotion.

Dasha B. Marchetti is the executive director of continuing education at BCCC.

For non-English speaking immigrants seeking opportunities for gainful employment and productive lives, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses are staples at many community colleges. In 2015, the fishcare division of MARS, Inc. — the same company that makes M&M’s candy — contacted Bucks County Community College (BCCC) to develop an ESL program for employees working in packaging and production.

MARS was seeking to increase productivity and employee retention as well as enhance the ability to promote from within rather than having to always search for good managers.

The idea of developing such a program struck a chord with Dasha B. Marchetti, the executive director of continuing education at BCCC. Her family had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia when she was a child, and she recalls her mother taking an ESL class.

Marchetti, who describes herself as someone who thinks “outside the box,” says that she was excited to develop a new venture for BCCC, which currently enrolls about 10,000 students.

Innovative idea

“It’s new and innovative and provides a much needed service to a whole new demographic in the community that we might have missed in the past,” says Marchetti. The companies that have chosen our college to provide the ESL program to their employees, not only do they want to retain them, but they also want to help provide them with the skills they need to excel. This is what a community is all about.”

These courses are adding another layer to the college’s mission of building a better workforce and better lives for members of the community, says Marchetti.

Donna Kim, director of continuing education and community program s at BCCC, says that MARS and the two other companies that subsequently requested customized programs — KVK Tech and Bio-Pharm Inc. — met with representatives from BCCC and provided details about their objectives.

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“KVK Tech has a very diverse workforce focused on providing the highest level of quality of FDA (Federa l Drug Administration) products to our customers. By partnering with BCCC, KVK Tech was able to help with the continued development and enhancement of both written and oral communication skills of many of our diverse employees,” says Jim Sykes, director of human resources of KVK Tech, a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

“KVK’s investment in this program helps demonstrate our commitment to our employees and the community while driving improved communications resulting in greater overall performance,” says Sykes.

Kim carefully chose her lead instructor based on background and experience. Denise Alexander was tasked with designing the training materials for each of the companies. She began by researching each company and meeting with management. Alexander requested handbooks, job-related materials and standard operating procedures that the employees encounter so she could get a genuine understanding of what employees need to master.

She also met with human resources and personnel directors to discuss issues that arise.

For KVK Tech and Bio-Pharm Inc., Alexander also researched terminology  that  the  FDA  may  use  in  audits  and  integrated  all that information into her course material.

Making it work

A designated meeting space was created at each of the workplaces. Twice weekly classes took place either before or after a shift. While the participants, some of whom had been with the companies for years, were initially a bit reticent, as the approximately 10-week class progressed, they gained confidence and developed camaraderie.

There were nine students in the class at the MARS fishcare division. The KVK Tech and Bio-Pharm Inc. classes took place in the fall of 2016, with 66 students at KVK Tech and 31 students at Bio-Pharm.

Materials at Mars focused on several subjects. One looked at mathematical terms the workers would utilize in the workplace, such as batch, target, adjustment, average, scale, circumference and volume. There was also a sheet on paperwork and documentation. Another sheet focused on vocabulary and illustrations.

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The pharmaceutical companies focused on business terms, chemical and technical terms and documentation. Sometimes, the students brought in forms they had to complete on the job.

Before the classes began, students underwent assessments, which mainly consisted of a grammar test and an interview. At the two pharmaceutical companies, the participants were at different job levels; some were chemists and others held advanced positions. So different sets of questions were created for them.

“Based on their ability to answer those questions — if they answered in very short one or two-word answers or more developed answers — we were able to place them in different levels for English proficiency,” says Alexander. “Throughout the course, we gave them a midterm and a final exam. The midterm exam had all four domains of language — reading, writing, listening and speaking — (with) heavier emphasis on listening and speaking.”

“We tried to create authentic tasks for them on the midterm,” she adds. “Things like, ‘describe where things are in the plant,’ something they would actually have to do in their everyday lives.”

In the advanced class at KVK Tech, participants had basic English competency but struggled with pronunciation. At the end of the course, they were asked to do sophisticated 10-minute presentations about the pharmaceutical industry, attended by the company’s CEO. The topics were: “How do you retain employees in the company?” and “How do you see the pharmaceutical industry growing?”

Alexander says the CEO, Anthony Tabasso, told her that he was blown away. The presentations exceeded his expectations and he incredibly impressed by the presenters’ abilities to organize their thoughts and make their points.

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Mission accomplished

All students who completed the classes received certificates. After completion of their course, Marchetti and Kirn say MARS reported a 3 percent increase in productivity to BCCC.

KVK Tech is in the process of expanding, so showing employees how much the company is focused on their continued development is important.

“As a fast-growing company, we have many opportunities for developing your career; and strong, effective written and oral communications are critical to success,” says Sykes. “The feedback from the program was very positive, and we heard a common theme of how the program enhanced employees’ communication and writing skills, benefitting them in both their professional and personal lives.”

Since these customized  company ESL classes began, BCCC has seen a significant  increase  in enrollment in the on-campus  ESL program, which has grown from 54 students in the spring of 2014 to 150  students  in the fall of 2016. Kirn says she partially credits the growth to positive word of mouth. She hopes that individuals who have completed such programs will now feel confident enough to take for-credit courses at BCCC.

With its customized ESL program established, Kirn says, BCCC will continue to reach out to the community and create partner-ships with local businesses. Marchetti says the college will market these customized programs and promote its services and will consider developing a model adaptable for small businesses.

“Each business will have their own goals and needs, which will dictate the development of the individual program, including the objectives, curriculum and design of the program,” says Kirn.

“At community colleges, the classes don’t occur in a vacuum,” says Alexander. “In order for them to be successful, institutions of higher education need to reach out to the community and provide meaningful experiences. The example of that is for classes to occur in a workplace using the actual work environment and the work language. This is an example of that.”

  • This story also appears in the June 15,2017 print edition of Diverse.
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