CEDAR GROVE – For years, Willman Industries President Todd Willman considered offering English lessons at the Sheboygan County family foundry, but he feared it might offend his employees.
Eventually he started asking the workers if this was something they would be interested in, and the response was positive.
“One person said, ‘Yeah, how soon can I sign up?'”, Remembers Willman.
Willman Industries is an iron foundry located in Cedar Grove, a small village less than 20 miles southwest of Sheboygan. The foundry manufactures parts for companies such as Caterpillar and John Deere.
The foundry has always had many Spanish-speaking workers, Willman said. Of the 75 unionized workers currently at Willman, about 60 speak Spanish, said John Stanczyk, vice president of engineering.
After realizing how much some of his employees wanted to improve their English, Todd Willman turned to local organizations for help. Willman eventually teamed up with the Sheboygan Literacy Council, a non-profit organization that helps adults learn English, and started the council Workforce Literacy Program at Willman in 2018.
The program provides businesses with a qualified ESL teacher who works with employees to improve their English, reading and writing skills.
Classes are structured around a company’s needs and goals and include lessons on workplace safety and language, as well as skills that will help people in their day-to-day lives, said Jen Balge, coordinator from community education to Sheboygan County Family Resource Center.
“Communication is the main benefit,” Balge said. “Being able to communicate makes things a lot more efficient, so workers can do more, which makes them a bit safer in their jobs, I think. Employers are happy when people do more things because that they are more efficient, and therefore they are able to make greater progress in whatever their business.
Employees benefit at work, in personal life
Since 2018, around 20 workers have participated in English classes at Willman, said Stanczyk, who oversees the literacy classes.
To make it as convenient as possible for employees – who often have other responsibilities outside of work, such as family or a second job – the classes are held during working hours. Classes meet twice a week for half an hour at a time, and employees are paid to attend, Stanczyk said.
“It takes courage to want to improve, and it must be a challenge to be 45, 50 and start learning a different language,” Stanczyk said. “But we think what we have done is working. We are seeing the benefits.”
The Literacy Council offers a beginner and intermediate class for Willman workers, depending on their abilities and needs. Ashleigh Yonke, an ESL teacher at Sheboygan Literacy Council, also worked one-on-one with employees who had different needs and even helped a worker at Willman study to pass his citizenship test.
In the beginner’s class, Yonke focuses on English and basic concepts, such as prepositions.
During a class at Willman in early September, Yonke used a random collection of items – a water bottle, a glittery rubber duck, a ragged baseball cap, and a Styrofoam mug – to help illustrate the concepts of front, back, left and right and in addition to the small class of Spanish speaking workers.
Next, she helped the students complete a worksheet, asking them questions about the placement of objects in an illustration of a messy room.
The middle class focuses more on reading and writing, and Yonke assigns homework to the students so they can practice even more.
Omar Rodriguez and Luis Jaimes are two of Willman’s middle class students. Both are from Mexico and arrived in the United States about 20 years ago, the men said. Rodriquez works in Willman’s shipping and receiving department, and Jaimes takes care of maintenance.
Rodriguez and Jaimes want to do everything possible to improve their English skills, which benefits men both at work and in their personal lives, they said.
At work, Rodriguez is able to communicate better with the truck drivers with whom he interacts.
“I want to know exactly what these guys want and how can I help the drivers,” Rodriguez said. “I understand better what they want because sometimes these guys want some help from me like putting this one in the front or putting this one in the back. I want to figure it all out and I want to do a better job so it’s easier for them and it’s easier for me because sometimes this communication is difficult, I have to work twice. If I understand the first time, I only do my job once . “
Outside of work, learning English has helped Jaimes get involved in her children’s education. Like many parents, his children ask him for help with homework, which is in English, and he needs to understand what homework is so that he can help them. He is also able to communicate better with his children’s teachers.
“My kids speak to me in English,” Jaimes said. “It’s a challenge for me because I have to translate the homework they got and I have to read the grades and everything and I have to explain to them what the book says. That’s my biggest challenge. It’s why I have to continue and try to learn as much as possible. “
Todd Willman has noticed the impact of English courses not only on the employees who take them, but on the company as a whole.
“Our communication is improving and I think it’s all part of the overall family atmosphere,” he said. “I think our employees, for the most part, know that we care about them. And it’s just another thing that we’re doing here that’s different from what you’ll find elsewhere.
Literacy Council seeks to expand workforce program
Currently, Willman Industries is the only company participating in the workforce literacy program, Balge said. The Literacy Council wants to expand the program, especially since the people of Willman have seen such positive results, she said.
There is a cost for companies to participate in the program, which pays for the teacher’s salary and class materials. If a business can’t afford the cost, the Literacy Council has a fund available from money donated by an anonymous donor, Balge said.
“It takes a lot of work,” Balge said of learning English. “I really try not to water down when I talk with companies. You can’t learn English in a 12 week course. We don’t try to offer a quick fix. It’s long and it takes We want to support students and encourage learning and we also want to support businesses and encourage a positive economic community. “