For years, Baltazar Ruiz avoided paying inside gas stations because he couldn’t tell the attendant which gas pump he was using.
He threw away most of the mail arriving at his home in Le Center, Minn.
Visiting a doctor? A bank? “That was really bad,” he said.
Born in Mexico, Ruiz legally immigrated 34 years ago so he could work and help support 10 siblings back home. But he never fully learned English and that impeded both his home life and his career.
Nearly five years ago, he signed up for a new program at the Cambria countertop plant where he worked in Le Sueur, Minn. The company was offering courses in English as a second language (ESL) as part of participants’ workdays, a leader in Minnesota in the training and only a handful of employers offering it in the state.
Cambria had an ambitious goal: make sure all of its 300 foreign-born workers at the 650-worker factory could read and write English at an eighth-grade level or above. The ESL program was born with one instructor. It now has four teaching 50 classes with a total of 123 workers in Le Sueur and Belle Plaine.
“It was right away, I learned a lot,” said Ruiz, who came into work on his days off to take extra classes.
“It made me more confident,” he said. “It’s hard to talk when you think people are going to make fun of you” because of pronunciation errors.
Ruiz’s skills improved so much, he was promoted in 2017 and now supervises 30 line workers who prepare molds and operate computerized mixing beds for Cambria’s quartz slabs.
The program has met Cambria CEO Marty Davis’ expectations. He said morale has improved, work speeds have risen and workers who now speak English are moving up.
The classes proved a “win-win,” Davis said. “This was about improving the human condition.”
Besides Cambria other Minnesota employers offering ESL classes include Andersen Windows & Doors, Gillette Children’s Hospital, Bix Produce and the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
“These are unique and early adopters. There are not a lot of these,” said Hamse Warfa, deputy commissioner for workforce development at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
With labor shortages and statewide unemployment sinking to 3.3%, more employers are considering immigrants for entry-level jobs, even if they aren’t tackling the language problem, Warfa said. “From 2010 to 2018, close to 60% of our state workforce participation came from immigrant communities,” Warfa said.
In 2017, the University of Minnesota and DEED found that 81% of immigrant workers didn’t speak English as a first language and 45% were “less than proficient.”
That language barrier hinders wages and career development, said Warfa and Davis.
Davis got the idea to start ESL classes in his factory after strolling through the mixing plant one day and noticing many instruction posters in Spanish.
After learning that nearly 20% of his employees spoke little or no English, he thought of the signs as “a form of oppression.”
“If we keep appeasing their lack of English, they will never get out of low-level jobs,” Davis said. “To get into management, you have to read and write English.”
If they learned English, immigrants also could connect better with their communities. The workers currently participating in the program are immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand and France.
The program costs Cambria $530,000 a year and is well worth it, Davis said. The training helped Ruiz and 14 other immigrants move into management jobs.
The scope of Cambria’s program has shocked some immigrant advocates across the state.
Cambria “has four instructors. That is incredible. We are not seeing anything like that. It’s very rare,” said Deborah Cushman, associate director of Literacy Minnesota.
“When it comes to workplaces, many employers simply screen out job applicants who don’t have a level of proficiency in English. So we’d love to see more for-profit companies invest in supporting workers who need to learn English,” she said. “It would be awesome.”
Warfa said he is excited about the huge progress Cambria’s workers have made.
He is also thrilled about two recently expanded pilot programs. One is teaching food court, maintenance and car-rental workers English at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. And the other is teaching immigrant workers English at the Andersen window and door plants in Bayport and Cottage Grove.
“As someone tasked with leading the workforce-development system for the state, I am excited to see employers getting creative and using nontraditional means to attract [and advance] workers,” Warfa said.
Andersen Corp. held its first English pilot class 13 months ago with four workers at its Bayport factory.
It went so well, Andersen added 16 student workers in September and will soon expand to 52 workers — mostly from Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Somalia — in classes at Cottage Grove and Bayport, said Julie Strommen, talent development manager at the company.
With labor shortages, Andersen is lucky to tap immigrant talent, Strommen said, adding that “we’re making sure we [offer] the best way to help them have a great career at Andersen.”
Kamille Kolar, the first teacher in Cambria’s program, said she cried when Ruiz and 11 others in Cambria’s first class stepped up to accept their diplomas in June 2016.
“I am really proud of them,” said Kolar, who welcomes her third group of graduates on Thursday.
For Ruiz, the classes made his life at work much easier. He no longer needed to wait for his boss, Jose Martinez, to translate instructions about line equipment or scheduling issues.
“I could communicate not only with Spanish [co-workers], but with my line supervisors,” he said. “It made me more confident.”
Martinez said the program “helped our workflow a lot, for sure.”
Dashing through the aisles in between rumbling quartz presses, Brian Scoggin, executive vice president of operations, said he noticed more interaction between the Spanish- and English-speaking workers, as well as more confidence in the workers. “It’s been a nice surprise,” he said.
The anecdotal evidence of the program’s success makes Davis beam.
“The biggest discovery was the growth in self-confidence and the development of self-esteem they gained,” Davis said. “You never look at [not knowing] English as a handicap. But it is and it can knock your self-esteem.”
Like Ruiz, his cousin Patty also graduated from Cambria’s ESL class in 2016 and was similarly promoted afterward. She’s now a Cambria operations technician who inspects each countertop as it glides from one of the massive press ovens.
Before the English classes, promotion and raise, she worked 55 hours a week. Now she makes more, works 40 hours a week and can spend more time with her husband and daughter.
“I love it. I was taking classes outside of work, but this was really pushing me hard to learn faster,” she said. “From the first day we started, we began reading and working on comprehension. I felt like it jumped from a level 1 to 8 [overnight]. Suddenly I [could communicate] with Americans who spoke no Spanish at all.”
And going to the bank? Baltazar Ruiz said that’s now “a piece of cake.”