During most of his work week, Cesar Orantes dons a hair net, rubber gloves, and a white apron flecked with fish scales for his job in quality assurance at Stavis Seafoods, a wholesaler in Boston’s Seaport District.
But for four hours each week, the Guatemalan native removes his protective gear, gathers with several of his co-workers in the company’s break room, and turns his attention to something very different: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other fundamentals of English.
The classes are free and held during the workday, and Orantes is paid his regular wage while sitting in the makeshift classroom. Stavis even gives him and his colleagues a bonus if they attend a certain number of classes.
As Orantes improves his English language skills, he is also boosting his workplace performance, since the better he can communicate with customers and colleagues, the more effectively he can do his job.
“I work on a computer sometimes, so I communicate a lot by e-mail, and sometimes I make a mistake or people don’t understand what I type, so this class is helping a lot,” said Orantes, who lives in Chelsea and grew up speaking Spanish.
“It’s better to get educated,” he added, “and if they offer it for free, you’re going to take it.”
Faced with a labor shortage in the robust Massachusetts economy — the state’s unemployment rate of 2.9 percent is the country’s second-lowest, along with North Dakota — employers are increasingly relying on immigrant workers, and a growing number of businesses are devoting resources to on-the-job English language instruction.
At least 35 Massachusetts companies provide free English classes, according to a Globe tally. The training lets them retain promising employees, promote from within, and identify workers whose potential was previously hidden behind a language barrier.
Employers offering this benefit, which is often partially paid for by state grants, range from hospitals to manufacturing firms to food service companies. Some even schedule predawn courses to accommodate overnight workers, who finish their shifts with an English class before clocking out for the day at 7 or 8 a.m.
“If we hire somebody who doesn’t cut up the right seafood for an order because they can’t read the order form, that’s not good customer service,” said Stuart Altman, a co-owner of Stavis Seafoods, which says at least 20 percent of its 133-person workforce are immigrants, mostly Latino and Asian. Currently, 18 of them are enrolled in the company’s English class.
By offering English instruction, errors are reduced, Altman said, and “this gives us an opportunity to train the next generation of middle managers, and puts them in a position to succeed the best they can.”
The classes are typically taught by instructors from community colleges, nonprofit organizations, and civic associations, with funding for the instruction often provided by the state’s Workforce Training Fund or Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Employers cover workers’ wages while they attend class.
Bristol Community College, for example, offers English instruction at several companies in Fall River Industrial Park, including Raw Seafoods; Blount Fine Foods; John Matouk & Co., a maker of linens and other home accessories; and Klear Vu, which manufactures chair pads and rocker sets. North Shore Community College offers English classes at Kettle Cuisine in Lynn and a few other area companies.
The YMCA of Greater Boston has provided English training at the Langham Hotel and at numerous small businesses in Chelsea. The Chinatown-based Asian American Civic Association currently teaches English at Piantedosi Baking Company in Malden. And Jewish Vocational Service runs English classes at 17 Boston-area employers, including Stavis, Partners HealthCare, Whole Foods Market, Legal Sea Foods, Boloco, and TE Connectivity, an electronics manufacturer with facilities in Norwood and Worcester.
Interest in English training is so robust that JVS has tripled the number of classes it offers in recent years, from nine in 2009 to 27 this year, according to business development director Mandy Townsend.
Requests for grant funding for English instruction are growing rapidly, too. The state’s Workforce Training Fund, which companies pay into and which gives Massachusetts businesses money for employee training, has nearly tripled its grant allocations for English classes over the past four years, from $126,000 in 2013 to $368,000 last year, according to fund director Robert Duncan.
During and after the recent recession, when he tried to persuade companies to offer English classes, “the answer I got was, ‘Hey, man, I’m just trying to keep the shop open here; I can’t think about training,’ ” recalled Franklin Peralta of English for New Bostonians, a nonprofit that promotes English classes for adult immigrants by connecting employers with instructors.
“But now, they’re more receptive because they’re doing better and feel more stable,” he said, “and it’s harder for them to get the workers they need.”
The workers they can get are often nonnative English speakers. As of 2013, nearly 19 percent of the Massachusetts workers were born in other countries — roughly 689,000 people — up about 2 percent since 2005, according to US Census data. As a result, language training is in demand.
“Employers are not just doing this out of their good hearts,” Peralta added. “There is an economic benefit for them, because if you have a more well-trained workforce, they will be able to be more productive to you.”
Scully Signal, a 98-person industrial equipment manufacturing firm in Wilmington, partnered with JVS last year to offer English classes to its employees, who include immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, Portugal, Brazil, Russia, China, and Mexico.
The company was adopting “lean manufacturing,” which encourages workers at all levels to suggest ways to improve productivity. But it realized that language limitations would make it difficult for some employees to share their ideas, so it decided to invest in English training.
“If employees aren’t comfortable speaking up and can’t make themselves understood, that prevents them from moving up and prevents the company from taking advantage of their expertise,” said executive vice president Katrina Scully Ohl.
Employees who are competent in English aren’t just better communicators; they also better understand workplace safety rules, and English proficiency makes them more digitally adept, since hospital and hotel workers who clean rooms, for example, must sometimes chart their progress on hand-held devices that require basic English literacy.
Employers say the training can also improve employee morale as workers get better acquainted in the classroom and feel more part of a team.
The classes often have another welcome benefit: more confident employees.
“We used to say hi to some of our workers, and they’d basically just smile and nod because they were embarrassed by their lack of mastery of the English language,” said Glenn Gertridge, Scully’s director of manufacturing operations.
“But now, they can have a conversation with us, and because of their increased confidence and ability to communicate, we see more potential in them,” he added. “All of a sudden you’re recognizing talent that you may not have recognized previously.”
Gertridge described the classes as “a huge investment from the company’s standpoint . . . because while they’re in class that’s a significant loss in productivity, so we end up having to pay overtime for other people to produce the work we need to produce.”
But offering classes during the workday increases attendance, he said, since some employees have second jobs and family responsibilities that prevent them from taking courses before or after work.
Plus, Gertridge added, “we have to invest in our employees, because not having trained employees is more of a threat.”