‘‘We all eat lunch together, like family,” says Dan McKean, who is responsible for XLam’s continuous improvement.
“It’s a way to celebrate small wins.”
Today, with rain bucketing down in sheets, an outdoor cookout has been swapped for a pizza delivery, to be eaten in the canteen.
Preparing to break for lunch, workers in orange vests move around the large factory, where the company manufactures laminated timber, used to build “all kinds of amazing buildings,” Dan says.
There are 39 workers on the shop floor, and a third are from Myanmar. Carpenter Maung Hla Pan arrived in New Zealand in 2008 and has been with the company for two years. He speaks carefully, picking his way slowly but assuredly through his new language.
When he was young, Maung worked with his father, building houses, and farmed rice. When he was 21, he left Myanmar, spending the next 15 years in a Thai refugee camp. He knew little about New Zealand before he got on the plane, but grabbed the opportunity to start a new life.
Learning English was just one of a number of barriers Maung has had to overcome on his journey.
“At first when I came here, I couldn’t do many things, I had to be taught so much.”
However, honing his language skills with English Language Partners has transformed his working life.
“Learning English has helped me with health and safety. It’s important to ask things related to what we’re doing here. I can understand better, working with others.”
It also helps him connect with his colleagues. “I work with Indian men, we can’t speak each other’s language but we speak in English.”
He’s still learning, he says. Some words are still difficult, words with a “sh” sound. “Fish, ship, that’s a difficult sound,” he says, adding that his four children, who picked up the language easily, make fun of his accent.
XLam’s first Burmese employee joined back in 2014. “Our former CEO went down to Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and asked if there was anyone suitable to join the company,” says Dan. “And they said, ‘I’ve got the best guy for you!’. And that was it.”
It’s important for Dan to know where “his guys” come from. “It’s really important to identify with their individual stories, and discover how to develop as a company with them. “Our motto here is, ‘do the right thing’. We strive for excellence, and that means doing the right thing in every aspect of our work and in our relationships.”
Each week, English Language Partners conducts classes in the company boardroom. As English levels improve, so does the company’s culture, Dan says. “Not only do our workers now have the skills to communicate with everyone, it means there is a higher level of safety and quality. Understanding more English means they can do quality checks, and helps us encourage further personal development.”
Knowing English is far more than a day-to-day convenience, Dan says. In fact, the future of the company rests on his Burmese workers’ knowledge.
“If they have greater than basic English, it enables us to potentially have enormous success. They’re 30 per cent of the company, we wouldn’t be efficient without them.” And, of equal importance in a company where everyone is “like family,” a shared language means a growing staff camaraderie, Dan says.
“There’s an understanding of a friendly exchange of laughter. The more time you spend on the shop floor, the more the jokes become freely available.”
“Our Burmese staff are proud to be New Zealanders. They’ll say, ‘I’m a Kiwi’ and I say, ‘okay, show us the haka then,’ which always makes them laugh.”
Each week, teacher Trish Standring joins XLam’s Burmese employees in the boardroom for lessons. There’s a clear advantage to holding classes at work, she says.
“With classes after work, students have to come in the evening, which is challenging when you work all day.” Coming to the workplace means tutors can also ensure lessons are relevant. “We can tailor lessons to the workplace, and really focus on what students need to learn.”
“When lessons take place at work, and are related to what they’re doing, they have more motivation. To be successful at work you need English.”
“And in the community,” adds Dan. He would like to see more workplaces adopt XLam’s stance of employing former refugees.
“We live in a multicultural society, I’d like to see that reflected in New Zealand’s companies. Our success depends on it.”
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