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Employees use English as tool to move up ranks

PATTERSON, N.J. – Companies that have low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs to fill often hire applicants who speak little or no English. While many of the workers move up the ladder by learning the language on their own, a number of these businesses large and small take an activist approach by offering English language programs or partnering with government to provide them.

Jose Muñoz, a 35-year-old area manager at McDonald’s who is in charge of three Paterson locations and oversees more than 250 employees, is self-taught. He came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1996 and started to learn English by watching cartoons on television.

“I know it’s kind of funny and silly,” Muñoz said. “But my sister made me, so I could hear” the English words. He practiced his pronunciation with his manager at his first job at McDonald’s, and Muñoz was able to quickly improve his English. He became a manager three years later, upon graduation from high school.

The rapid ascent of employees like Muñoz through the ranks got the attention of higher-level executives at McDonald’s.

So, in 2007, the fast-food chain began a program called “English Under the Arches” that was geared to help employees with leadership potential who were limited by their inability to speak proficient English. The program is designed to help managers and manager trainees.

To Lori Prymak, a regional training manager at McDonald’s, the program is a great way to train and retain some employees who have leadership potential. “The thing that’s holding them back is the language barrier,” she said. McDonald’s reported that 70 percent of employees who went through the program still work with the company four years after completing it.

New Jersey has its own programs to help employees improve their English skills.

Beacon Converters Inc., a Saddle Brook-based maker of packaging for food and sterile medical devices, received a $50,000 Skills4Jersey grant in 2012 from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to train its mostly Latino and Polish workforce.

Part of the $50,000 grant went toward a year’s worth of English as a Second Language classes for an employee, said Jackie Daly Johnson, chief executive officer and president.

The ESL classes assist about 16,000 people a year, as part of the department’s adult basic education program.

To be hired at Beacon Converters, applicants must have basic English language skills. However, knowing the basics does not necessarily make an employee feel comfortable speaking with outsiders in a professional setting.

Beacon Converters has been hosting ESL courses for employees for more than 10 years. Johnson said the programs started when the company realized that employees who spoke little English “wanted to do more, but the language was a stumbling block.”

For Vilma Prieto, 54, of Paterson, improving her English helped her move from her first job as an inspector packer to her current post as a chief quality officer. Prieto, who came from Cuba, started with the company 23 years ago, after the birth of her third child.

“All the training has allowed employees to grow in the company,” Prieto said.

Among others who have benefited are Maria Nowobilska, 43, and Marleny Rodriguez, 29. Nowobilska is a native of Poland, and Rodriguez came from the Dominican Republic.

Nowobilska has been with the company for 21 years and now works in the engineering department. Rodriguez has been with the company for eight years and is a quality supervisor.

“These employees don’t just communicate internally, they are primary contacts” for their respected departments, Johnson said.

She added: “We will continue to do ESL programs, out-of-pocket if need be.”

To Howard Miller, the labor department’s chief of Adult Education and Literacy, “labor is an adult educator” for non-English-speaking employees. The Latino workforce in particular is “a group you’ve just got to recognize.”

Figen Tabakci, an adult basic education program director, said 37 percent of the adult ESL students she works with are employed either full or part time.

The majority of people in the program join individually, she said, but some employers – such as O’Neil Color and Compounding, a manufacturer of color concentrates, plastic additives, and specialty compounds in Garfield – also have approached her about ESL classes.