English Language Classes for Cambria Workers Catching on at Other Companies

A program pioneered by the countertop manufacturer Cambria to offer English language classes to help immigrant workers better succeed at work and in society has become a model for both public and private sector employers. The Star Tribune recently profiled a Cambria employee named Baltazar Ruiz whose challenges with English still held him back years after immigrating legally to Minnesota–until he took advantage of the company’s language course offered on the job.

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.

Roughly half of immigrant workers overall struggle with English, according to the state. After observing firsthand how the language challenge held back both employees and the company, Cambria CEO Marty Davis went all in. The result has been improved productivity and personal advancement.

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.

Other Minnesota employers have followed suit, including one government agency following the private sector’s lead.

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 a strong economy and continued job growth, the demand for immigrant labor will only increase, leaving companies that offer the opportunity to learn English perhaps best positioned to help both their workers and themselves.