Workplace language training gets cash boost

Ontario invests $3.4 million over two years

Syed Wasimul Haque knows how to run a business. In Karachi, Pakistan, he held the post of chief executive officer at a number of organizations, including banks. But in Canada, in a technician job at a cabinet manufacturer, he couldn’t express himself well enough to offer the smallest of inputs in how things were done.

“I couldn’t have a conversation. I had to stop and try to remember the words all the time,” said Haque.

The fact he can manage a conversation now is thanks to an English language class offered at AyA Kitchens and Baths in Mississauga, Ont., where he works. In the class, Haque learns more than just conversational English. He also learns terminology that’s unique to his line of work, such as parts of the cabinet.

It was part of a new language training program fully funded by Ontario’s Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The first phase, introduced in 2006 at a cost of $2.2 million, enabled 15 school boards to offer classes in English and French at 40 workplaces. Classes were tailored to focus on the language of work in a variety of occupations and industries, including steel manufacturing, hotel and tourism, transportation, nursing, retail sales, child care, pharmaceuticals and medical laboratories.

At AyA Kitchens and Baths, managers have been concerned for some time about workers’ ability to understand English. As in many manufacturing facilities in the Toronto area, the majority of workers at AyA Kitchens and Baths are newcomers to Canada and many of them have very limited English skills.

“We’re in manufacturing so we’re very concerned about health and safety,” said Nancy Branco, human resources manager at AyA Kitchens and Baths. “Our employees don’t need to be fluent, but they do need to understand enough so we don’t have to worry about safety issues.” For example, passing the WHMIS test is a considerable challenge for some, she added.

Although there are a lot of English as a second language classes offered in the community, Branco knows it’s difficult for workers to find the time to travel to class after work. That’s why the company signed up for the Specialized Language Training pilot project offered by the Ontario government.

The province, via the local school board, covered the cost of instruction. All the employer had to provide was the space for a two-hour session once a week for 20 weeks.

“When the facilitator started, he asked for our input — what did we want to see delivered in the training. So we created a dictionary of terms that are specific to the company. And he was open to that,” said Branco.

There was space for nine people in that first class, which started last September, so the company selected the first group of students based on their needs as well as on their potential to grow in the company.

“We did worry about whether or not there would be a backlash” among people who weren’t offered the class, said Branco. There wasn’t, and the next class will be open to any employee who wants to sign up.

Last month the government of Ontario announced a second phase of the project, this time with $3.4 million in funding over two years. The government is still in talks with employers so it’s too early to tell how many employers will take part, said Michel Payen-Dumont, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.

Newcomers to Canada have access to two parallel streams of language instruction, said Renate Tilson, executive director of Toronto-based Teachers of English as a Second Language Ontario. In Ontario, English as a second language classes are funded by the province while the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada offers what’s commonly known as LINC classes — Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada.

Though relatively new to Ontario, the Specialized Language Training programs are patterned after the federal government’s Enhanced Language Training (ELT) programs, said Tilson. These offer language instruction at a higher level, often with a focus on work.

Since 2003, Enhanced Language Training projects across the country have been offered to integrate nurses, truck drivers, health technologists and therapists, child-care workers, call centre workers, people in business administration, tradespeople and engineers. As the province receiving most of the immigrants to Canada, Ontario gets most of the federal ELT dollars with $38 million over five years from 2006 to 2011. The remaining provinces and territories, minus Quebec which administers its own settlement programs, get $7 million in ELT funding.

At AyA Kitchens and Baths, supervisors have noticed a real change among the people taking the class. One student who barely spoke before the class has now volunteered to be on the health and safety committee, said Branco.

Likewise, Haque too is speaking up and seeking out new opportunities. He has recently given Branco his resumé in the hopes of finding other jobs in the company.

“I want to go up, up and up in this environment,” said Haque. “In the next two or three years, I want to find a good job in this company.”

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