“‘Survival’ Language Cures Labor Woes”

Larry Tilley teaches his 70 workers English, Spanish to find skills.

The booming economy of the ’90s proved a blessing and a burden for Larry Tilley, president of Acme Plumbing & Heating, in Durham, N.C. The third-generation owner of his family’s business, which generates annual sales of $6.6 million, Tilley faced no shortage of work orders. Yet the robust economy resulted in a major labor shortage for the Durham area, where unemployment stood at 1.8%. For Tilley, that made it extremely difficult to find qualified workers, especially those with the potential to become foremen.

Recognizing the need to take action, Tilley accepted an invitation to host a booth at a local job fair, where he struck up a friendship with Rachel Kindred, president of Durham-based Start-From-Scratch Spanish LLC. Tilley explained his predicament and expressed a willingness to hire Latino workers. However, few of his current employees spoke Spanish, and the majority of the area’s 20,000 Hispanics weren’t fluent in English.

Kindred offered help in the form of her user-friendly "survival" language courses. The eight-week course focuses not on traditional verb conjugation and grammar, but on teaching workers job-specific words and phrases that can be put to use immediately — such as asking for the right tool or material, or warning of an impending danger. "It’s much more immediate gratification," says Tilley.

Acme launched an English course for its five Hispanic workers and three Spanish courses for its other 65 employees. Two of the Spanish classes were designed for field workers, teaching terms for tools, materials and directions, and a third was structured for Tilley’s office workers.

Kindred helped Tilley’s staff translate Acme’s employment application into Spanish. She also worked with Acme’s inventory clerks to label common plumbing fixtures in both English and Spanish. Meanwhile, employees were lining up in droves to take the classes, which were paid for by the company, but held after hours on the workers’ own time.

The experience helped Acme’s workers understand the language difficulties that Hispanics face. "There we were in the Spanish classes just stuttering and feeling so embarrassed and stupid because we couldn’t speak the language," says LeeAnn Tilley, Larry’s wife and Acme’s customer-care manager. "It made us much more sympathetic to their situation, and now we are much more inclined to be helpful and accommodating."

Language-training benefits were far-reaching, enabling Tilley to finally find qualified workers who could work their way up to the supervisory ranks. Two Hispanic workers have become sufficiently bilingual that they have recently achieved the rank of plumbing foreman and are now running their own crews.

It’s hard to put a price on the competitive advantage that the survival language training has given Acme, says Tilley: "In an area like ours with such low unemployment, for me to find someone of their quality, I would almost have to rob them from my competitor and pay premium wages to get them to come work for me. It’s opening up a new avenue to gain skilled workers."

Writer: Julie Cook