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Businesses invest in English skills

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Howard Community College offers customized programs

Area businesses are investing in English language skills for their workers, giving them better on-the-job performance in the short-term and expanding their career potential in the long-term.

In a partnership with Howard Community College (HCC), Jessup-based Next Day Blinds has been offering a workplace program to improve employees’ English language skills. The 13-week-long class, held twice a year, three days a week, accommodates 15 students.

While the class is a workforce development program for the firm that has been providing custom window coverings since 1993, the intention isn’t to learn only English related to work tasks.

“Are we focusing the curriculum on the types of machinery or work they do? Absolutely not,” said Keisha Stevens, vice president of human resources for Next Day Blinds. “Our belief as an organization is that once we invest in an employee with education and training, it helps in the workplace as well as the community.”

She said, “We provide a training room and HCC provides the teacher.”

The idea first formed two years ago when the company began researching existing programs to help its workers learn English. Employees participate in the program for free. To be eligible to enroll, they must have worked for Next Day Blinds at least six months.

“For our workers, attending existing programs was hard because of the hours that they work,” said Stevens. “When English is your second language, everything becomes harder.”

Banking sector success

Luis Silva, shown here participating in a mock interview, is now employed in the banking sector.

Other workplace development efforts are flourishing in HCC’s Multicultural Banking and Finance Training Institute, which is attracting already-credentialed immigrants who want to get jobs in the U.S. banking sector.

Rosie Verratti, director of the English Language Center at HCC, which is the umbrella over both the Next Day Blinds program and the banking institute, recalled one student from Colombia who recently graduated from the institute.

“He had already earned an MBA in Colombia, his English was strong and he was super personable,” said Verratti. “The transition to the banking sector should have been relatively easy for him but he didn’t know the system for getting in front of people.”

The graduate is now working in banking.

Classes at the institute focus not only on the mechanics of the U.S. financial system but also cultural education. Learning “the system” – culturally and professionally – helps people make that transition successfully.

Gary Fernandes, division executive of Human Resources at Sandy Spring Bank, said the bank’s been involved with the Multicultural Banking and Finance Training Institute since the its inception three years ago.

In a very hands-on way, Sandy Spring Bank helped shape the institute. The bank’s human resources team helps conduct mock interviews and classes also tour the bank to learn about different aspects of operations.

“When HCC partners with local businesses and understands what we need, it really is beneficial for both parties,” said Fernandes.

The bank has extended job offers to three graduates who learned how to interact with clients, use workforce-specific language and write in a professional setting, among other skills.

Employees at Next Day Blinds can enroll in an English language program on the job site.

Deepening the worker pool

Looking at trends in the local population, employers that invest in English-speaking or cultural education programs can choose from a larger pool of qualified workers.
Currently, more than 2,000 noncredit students are enrolled in the English Language Center (ELC).

In the last few decades, the foreign-born population in the United States has increased dramatically from 14.1 million in 1980 to 43.7 million in 2016, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In Maryland, foreign-born people represent more than 15 percent of the total population. Forty percent of them have limited English proficiency.

On a local level, in Howard County, almost 20 percent of residents are foreign-born and 38 percent of those have limited English, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the ELC, which includes students from over 70 different countries, 50 percent of students taking intermediate or higher-level classes hold university degrees from their home countries, 30 percent in business and another 30 percent in science, technology, engineering or math fields.

Despite the education and skills these immigrants bring, many of them face limited English proficiency; unfamiliarity with the U.S. job search process and local labor markets; or they find the cost and complexity of re-licensing prohibitive.

Providing workforce development programs that address their unique needs can lead to tapping into a significant talent pool.

Seeing eye-to-eye culturally

The ELC also provides one-on-one tutoring for employees of local companies, said Verratti.

Businesses are also increasingly interested in the ELC’s cultural proficiency workshops for people who work with a lot of international clients or have a large population of foreign-born workers.

Businesses should become aware that their local community college can be a resource for workforce development, urged Verratti. “We are here at HCC – and we are out there in the community – helping prepare the workforce.”