Growing diversity in the workplace is forcing many small-company owners to restructure job training. When Datatec, a $40-million computer installer, decided to bring manufacturing in-house at its Fairfield, N.J., location, a language barrier loomed. Seventy percent of the work force there, which had done light assembly of parts until that time, was foreign born; most of the workers were Hispanic and didn't speak English. They struggled to understand their new, more technical job descriptions.

Vice-president of manufacturing Larry Tourjee decided that giving English lessons would be cheaper than losing longtime employees, so he told the employees that Datatec would pay for lessons on company time. He had no trouble persuading them to participate: "They realized it would help them move up in the company and make their lives outside better."

Tourjee took care in choosing the right instructor the first time. He looked for candidates who could teach on-site and were familiar with technical terms. He asked them for letters of recommendation and for contingency plans with backup instructors. After narrowing the field to four candidates, he brought them in to talk to the 15 students, who indicated which one they preferred.

Classes meet for two hours each week, starting at different levels because many workers need to master rudimentary Spanish reading skills first. The program has cost about $55,000 over the past three years for instruction, materials, salaries, benefits, and lost work time for all 15 workers. Tourjee estimates that's only 40% of what training the same number of new workers would have cost.

To foster commitment, Tourjee asked students to agree to "contracts" spelling out when they'd practice their new language skills. They came up with creative responses. One vowed to speak English all day every Friday; another agreed to act as a mentor to a lower-level student. Several planned weekly lunches with English-speaking employee-volunteers. Not only did those lunches foster intracompany communication, says Tourjee, but, in addition, "I found out fairly quickly who was having problems. And talking went a long way toward understanding their frustrations."

Errors from misinterpreting verbal instruction on the production line have since decreased dramatically, says Tourjee. And supervisors don't have to check up on assembly as frequently, since team leaders can now write in English the instruction notes that follow each project. Turnover has been nonexistent since the program was introduced, Tourjee claims. -- Phaedra Hise

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Datatec took advantage of New Jersey state funds available for employee retraining. Some states have an office of customized training, which pays a certain percentage of the cost of retraining workers for companies that demonstrate need and meet other criteria. Contact your local department of labor for more information.