Auckland company Thermakraft finds workplace English lessons decrease the risk of damage to expensive equipment and make the factory safer for workers.
The English for Employees classes – run by English Language Partners – aim to provide a ‘talking’ user manual for the company’s expensive bitumen and laminator machinery.
The equipment – used to make building insulation and underlay papers – was replaced after a fire spread from a nearby yard to the factory last year, causing extensive damage.
With any potential repair costs for this new machinery in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and requiring an engineer to be flown over from Holland, the company is keen to avoid any mistakes, and eager to make sure all workers are properly trained in the ins and outs of the technology.
With many workers non-native speakers of English, making sure they understand can be a challenge.
Sharon FultonBevers is the learning and development consultant whose job it is to ‘translate’ the tech-heavy machinery instructions into easy-to-understand English, ensuring all workers understand how the technology works and that the factory is up to health and safety standards.
“I’ve written it to year 3 level, which is basic; no more than two syllables, phrases no more than five or six words.” she says. “On technical pieces of machinery like these – it’s not the easiest thing I’ve done.”
Sharon describes her job as putting in a “learning infrastructure” and, with the workers having more knowledge and causing fewer accidents while improving their English, both employers and employees have been pleased with the results.
One major hurdle was teaching the workers to speak out when they don’t understand.
“Sometimes they’re too shy to say something, in case they make a mistake,” says leading hand supervisor Moré George. “If you sit around without saying anything, you won’t improve.”
Moré says communication can be difficult due to the language barrier, but people have started to open up since the lessons began.
“I said to them, ‘It’s alright, when people make mistakes, please don’t laugh at them, it’s not nice. As a team you should be working together’.”
Tonga Poteki, who has worked at the factory for 13 years, echoes his supervisor’s words. “We learn if we don’t know something, ask, ask someone.”
Like Tonga, many workers speak their native languages at home, meaning they don’t get much chance to improve their English.
“It’s difficult to work with other people who don’t know English. When we know English, it’s easy to do the work.”
Sharon estimates the level of English varies, from people who left school at age 10 to those who have a university-ready level, and credits English Language Partners Auckland South with their ability to deal with such varying levels.
“The diversity these guys deal with as teachers – it’s really impressive,” she says.
Teacher Karesse Angelo admits it can be tricky juggling multiple levels, but says everyone put in a lot of effort.
The guys created the learning environment by their openness, great attitude and humour. They showed patience and tolerance towards each other and to me.”
Karesse’s approach is also a hit. ”I always look forward to seeing her,” says Edward Tell, who has worked at the factory for around four years.
He says Karesse’s technique of remaining flexible and building the lessons around individual needs has led to his English improving.
“It’s the little things you might think aren’t important, but that are very effective.”
Sharon is also a fan of Karesse’s learner-centred approach. “She treats them as individuals.
“If something comes up in class that somebody’s interested in, she’ll do the research and find material that’s interesting and fits in with their literacy level.”
Sharon’s been in the learning industry for more than 25 years, and has taken a trial-and-error approach to applying a philosophy she’s evolved.
“It’s all about how we get learners from where they are to where they need to be. It’s basic project management, but on a literacy level.”
And even after so long, Sharon’s still learning. “You’re constantly updating yourself and your peers; trying to work a cooperative model.
“My philosophy is extended to saying ‘I don’t know what you do, I’m describing it’. I describe their processes back in a written form, at a level they can understand. I make mistakes, and they correct them, because we’re all in this together.”
It seems the approach of all learning together is working out well.
Writer James Fyfe | Photos Andrew Lau