More Employers Offering English Language Courses

See what Roger Berkowitz, President & CEO of Legal Sea Foods, has to say about the benefits of JVS's ESOL programs to his workers:

With the future of their workforces at stake, many Boston-area employers are offering English language classes to their immigrant employees to ensure that they can succeed — and even advance — on the job.
A number of companies have been offering English for Speakers of Other Languages classes — ESOL for short — for years, with costs often running between $1,200 and $1,700 annually for each student. But even more companies are sponsoring classes today, as community-based ESOL classes are backed up with two-year waiting lists, making it extremely difficult to get workers language-trained.

When Jewish Vocational Service, for one, began offering ESOL classes in workplaces a decade ago, it had three or four company-sponsored programs.

Today, the organization works with 22 employers and more than 1,000 students — every major hospital in Boston, and many food service operations, said Jerry Rubin, president of Jewish Vocational Service.

“We like to promote from within, and there are some awfully smart people coming over as immigrants who have had great jobs in their own countries. When they come to the U.S., it’s almost like starting over for them,” said Roger Berkowitz, owner of Legal Sea Foods, which provides ESOL training for workers in the company’s fish-processing plant.

ESOL hit the front burner recently with a report commissioned by The Boston Foundation and prepared by the Commonwealth Corp., analyzing the situation facing non-English-speaking immigrants in the state. The report found that workers who speak English can earn as much as $20,000 more a year.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides about $20 million in state and federal funds for ESOL classes, holding steady over the past five years, but still cannot match the pace of the arriving immigrants. At 24 percent, the share of adult immigrants living in the Greater Boston area between 2006 and 2008 was far greater than in Massachusetts as a whole and significantly higher than the national rate of 16 percent, according to The Boston Foundation report.

“If we can find the means to provide English support, they become higher contributors for our economy,” said Elaine Ng, executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which provides ESOL classes for about 400 students a year. The organization has a $4.3 million budget and receives just over $500,000 in state funding for its ESOL program.

Tufts Medical Center offers ESOL training on-site to about 40 employees a year, supported by some state funding, but less each year, said Sherry Dong, director of community health improvement programs. The hospital splits the cost 50-50 with Aramark, which provides food service, housekeeping and transport services, for employees who attend the classes while at work.

And BEST Corp. provides English language training for the hotel union’s Local 26, training workers in 22 Boston hotels through negotiated labor agreements, as well as to non-English-speaking immigrants who aspire to hotel jobs. Boston area hotels pay $850,000 for the skills training of the unionized workers, and a “significant amount” goes toward English language classes, said Marie Downey, executive director of BEST Corp. Starting pay is $15.73 an hour for many entry-level hotel jobs, Downey said, making ESOL classes well worth the effort for workers who can take them.

“These are the folks who go up the ladder, go into supervisory and management positions. Sometimes it’s a stepping stone to get back into a career they had in their own country,” said Berkowitz. “It’s not inexpensive, but I think it’s a good investment.”