Breaking Down Barriers: UNK partners with Eaton to provide English classes for employees

UNK English Language Institute coordinator Beth Montag, front left, and educator Laurel Volpe, back left, lead an English class for Eaton employees last week at the local manufacturing facility.
UNK English Language Institute coordinator Beth Montag, front left, and educator Laurel Volpe, back left, lead an English class for Eaton employees last week at the local manufacturing facility.

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Air compressor. Safety vest. Tornado shelter.

These aren’t terms Beth Montag and Rebekah Andersen usually focus on when they’re teaching classes at the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s English Language Institute. Typically, the curriculum is geared toward international students preparing for admission into a degree program, so they’re learning about things such as academic writing, public speaking and American culture while developing their vocabulary.

They definitely don’t talk about forklifts and fire extinguishers.

At one local manufacturing facility, though, those are common words employees need to know. Over the past eight weeks, instructors from the English Language Institute (ELI) worked with Spanish-speaking employees at Eaton to help them improve their English skills and better communicate with co-workers.

“ELI really serves two purposes. We have our students who want to go the academic, degree-seeking route, but we also have the community side, too. Those students are often interested in learning English for everyday purposes or professional purposes, or maybe they have a degree or certifications in their first language but they’re having trouble utilizing those skill sets here,” said Andersen, an ELI instructor.

The institute previously offered on-campus classes for employees at Tyson Fresh Meats in Lexington, but that partnership ended during the pandemic.

“We’ve always wanted to come back to it, but COVID really interrupted everything,” said Montag, an instructor and ELI coordinator. “I’m very passionate about this kind of education, because it’s an essential thing. As you improve your English skills, you improve your employability.”

Veronica Sanchez, a bilingual human resources generalist at Eaton, sees the same value.

“Our employees are the most important resource we have at Eaton,” she said. “Our success is due to our employees’ hard work and dedication. It is crucial that we provide the resources and tools for them to be successful. By offering English classes, we are investing in our employees and we are able to hire and retain a broader range of talent.”

The global intelligent power management company, which produces engine valves and gears at its Kearney facility, decided to partner with UNK because the university has a long history of providing English language training that’s engaging and effective. The curriculum can also be customized to meet the company’s needs.

Before the program started in early June, Montag and Andersen met with supervisors and completed an analysis to determine which terms were the most important for Eaton employees. They also asked the participants what they wanted to learn, which led to lessons that will help them communicate with health care providers, teachers and other community members.

The instructors and English language learners met twice a week inside a conference room at Eaton, allowing the employees to attend classes during or directly before their shifts. Those face-to-face interactions were an important aspect of the program, which was offered to employees at no cost.

“This allows them to be more engaged – they’re more excited to learn and they’re bringing their own ideas,” Andersen said. “That relationship-building also helps create a level of comfort. Part of the program is developing the actual skill set, and the other part is reaching that confidence level needed to communicate more effectively.

“That’s what we want to give the students. We want them to be proud of themselves and feel comfortable communicating in English, because that’s hard. If you’ve ever tried to speak in a foreign language, it’s intimidating.”

Although it’s impossible to learn an entire language in eight weeks, the Eaton employees certainly made significant progress.

“Our employees had an excellent experience and instruction,” Sanchez said. “The teachers tailored the classes to meet each employee’s needs while broadening their language around safety, production and their specific job duties. We have seen an improvement in their language skills and they’re more confident in communicating with others.”

Calling the program a “great success,” Sanchez hopes to see the partnership with UNK and its English Language Institute continue so more employees can take advantage of this resource. In fact, there’s already a waitlist for future classes.

“We have employees who are interested in learning English, and we want our employees to learn and be successful in their jobs,” Sanchez said.

Andersen and Montag see an opportunity to go one step further by expanding the program to additional businesses in the Kearney area.

“I just feel like there’s such a need in the community,” Montag said. “Obviously the businesses want their employees to be safe and they want them to be able to do their jobs effectively, but I also see it as a way that UNK can really make an impact. We have a lot of people within a 50-mile radius who are English language learners and this is a way to offer them something that can really impact their lives.”

“We hope this becomes more of an opportunity for us to serve those in our community who have a lot to offer – great skill sets, great motivation, great attitudes – there’s just that language barrier. We want to break that down a little bit,” Andersen added.