Dorte, you have been coordinator of English as a Second Language (ESL) Intensive at NorQuest College for several years now. Would you please introduce yourself and your work for our users?
I am an immigrant to Canada from Denmark – many years ago. I became interested in English as a Second Language through teaching the children of immigrants and also aboriginal children. I taught predominantly academic prep ESL for ten years to adult immigrants in Canada before I was offered my present position as coordinator of ESL at NorQuest College. I hold a Bachelor of Education and a Master of Education (TESL) from the University of Alberta.
Language trainings for new immigrants in Alberta: In Alberta, new immigrants first attend a federally funded language training program called LINC for about one year. For those who still need further language education, the province of Alberta funds approximately one additional year of language training, as well as a year of academic upgrading (up to grade 12) and ten months of job training. The program I manage is a provincially funded general ESL program with a mandate to give immigrants and non-native speaker citizens the language skills to succeed in the workplace. I have managed this program for about 4 years now. At the moment I oversee 300 students and 15 faculties. In addition, working at NorQuest (a public college located in Edmonton; the editor) offers many opportunities to write grant proposals and initiate innovative programming. I have enjoyed overseeing the development of several language tests based on the Canadian Language Benchmarks, a new curriculum and sets of teaching materials based on the benchmarks, as well as other smaller projects. NorQuest is unique in the region in the number of innovative programs and services it develops in cooperation with the Alberta and Canadian governments. At provincial and national conferences, NorQuest usually has more presentations than any other organization. This climate of encouragement and confidence has been inspiring to me, and I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to develop the program I oversee in accordance with my views on quality, learner relevance, accountability and content.
What can you tell us about workplace-based language programs at NorQuest?
We do not have work-place based PROGRAMS as such at NorQuest. English in the Workplace tends to be individual contracts negotiated with businesses that require training for a specific group of employees. NorQuest offers a range of employment-related language trainings that does not take place in the workplace, but prepares students for future employment. These include Practical Nurse Diploma for Internationally Educated Nurses (PNDIEN) – a two-year diploma in which the first year is spent in language training and language bridging into nursing courses and challenge exams.
Another program is Bridge to Transit Operator, which is offered in cooperation with the City of Edmonton Transit to prepare applicants to take the entrance exam to the training program. Other programs bridge professionals into training programs.
Language trainings in the workplace developed by NorQuest: NorQuest is the provincial leader in developing and providing language training in the workplace. Our cooperation with employers in the Edmonton region goes back more than thirty years. Over the years we have provided customized language trainings to large and small companies, among them Levi-Strauss, All Weather Windows, Colt Engineering, Landmark Builders and Worley Parsons, to name just a few. We have particular expertise in providing language and intercultural training to foreign-trained engineers who are much in demand in Alberta’s resource based economy.
Through the Centre for Excellence in Intercultural Education, we offer integrated English language in the workplace for professional, industrial, trade and business sector workplaces. Integrated workplace training improves language, interpersonal and business skills for newcomers to Canada, tailored to the requirements and the culture of the organization.
Job trainings for low literacy learners and courses on workplace hazardous materials: We offer WHMIS – Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System – courses (Kurse zum Thema Arbeitssicherheit und Gefahren am Arbeitsplatz; die Redaktion) and have developed plain English versions of the learning materials and tests for this course. We also offer job training for low literacy learners through our Business and Industry Careers department. These programs include job placements that often turn into permanent jobs for the graduates of the program.
These are just some of the workplace-related training opportunities we offer.
What are central features, contents and aims of these programmes?
We work with a variety of organizations, such as trade unions, sector organizations, such as the Manufacturers Safety Association, Building Trades Associations, etc. These are non-profit associations of companies engaged in the same sector, who form alliances to assist one another in areas such as safety training and other educational endeavours.
Intercultural competence is a two-way street: We provide expertise in designing language training programs, we customize and improve on their programs and materials, and we offer intercultural communication workshops to newcomers, colleagues, workplace trainers and managers within companies. We believe that intercultural competence is a two-way street, and that the Canadian-born employees and bosses learn, very easily, to change their communication styles and habits so that newcomers can understand them and become better integrated into the workplace.
It is our experience that in good economic times, newcomers have little difficulty obtaining employment in their field, but when times get tough, they are the first to lose their jobs. Even in good times, immigrants often fail to be promoted or may even lose their jobs if their communication skills are thought to be poor. We work with both the immigrant worker and the people he or she interacts with to improve the situation for everybody.
Tailoring courses according to the requirements of a specific workplace
Each program is customized to the specific workplace. We do a needs assessment, a job shadow, interviews with managers and co-workers, examination of work-related readings and writing requirements, lists of potential communicative tasks, etc. We take this back to design the course or workshop. Then we deliver the course or workshop and do follow-ups to make sure it has been successful and that the participants are satisfied. We have a great deal of repeat business and a number of multi-year relationships with various employers in the Edmonton area.
Bridging Programs for particular professions: Bridging programs, such as the PNDIEN are not tied to a specific workplace, but seek to prepare foreign trained professionals to re-enter their former profession. Bridging programs aim to increase the language proficiency of participants within a narrow range of language specific to their future career. Rather than work on the broad spectrum of the whole language, bridging programs narrow the focus to a specific set of vocabulary and language functions which are required for a particular profession. Research has shown that such an approach increases the language proficiency gains in that narrow range, thus permitting learners to complete their training and enter a profession.
Additionally, I would like to ask which kinds of workplace literacy programmes in your region you know of.
The government of Canada has produced a document called Workplace Essential Skills, which is a framework describing 5 levels of literacy competencies for the workplace. Every job profile can be pegged to a level in the framework, which comes with training and assessment tools. All this is available from Canada Human Resources and Development at http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/workplaceskills/essential_skills/general/home.shtm
Supporting literacy learners: For literacy learners, the department also has an Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES) that works to support learners, companies, trainers, etc. with tools, materials and assessments.
I would like to draw your attention to just one of the many resources on this web site, namely a literature review of research into workplace literacy in Canada. The link is http://www.ccsd.ca/pubs/2007/literacy/Canadian_Literacy_Literature_Review.pdf
There is in fact so much research done and still being done in this area that it is impossible for me to summarize it. Canada, unlike Germany, I expect, still struggles to educate all of the native born population to the necessary level of literacy required for work. Work has grown in complexity and in its demand on literacy and numeracy. Older, less educated workers are falling behind and need help transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. Aboriginal people and people in rural or isolated areas, and also people whose educational experience for whatever reason was not successful are at a disadvantage and require literacy upgrading. In this context, it has not been much of a challenge to include literacy programming for newcomers as part of the adult education offerings. NorQuest College has the only full time adult literacy program in the province. It enrols up to 150 students per term. Many of them are newcomers, but a large proportion is aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians who are preparing for further education or for the workplace.
Another organization in Alberta that provides support for literacy in the workplace is Literacy Alberta. Their web site is http://www.literacyalberta.ca/employers.htm. One example of an employer association for the purpose of promoting safety and safety education is Alberta Construction Safety Association. You will find their website at http://www.acsa-safety.org
Who are the target groups of these programmes? (Which second language learning options for semi skilled workers exist in Alberta?)
Full time programming at a college: There are two routes a person can go to improve language or literacy skills. One of them is to take full time programming through a college such as NorQuest. For low-skilled people, newcomers, and people who are upgrading to qualify for entry into a post-secondary program of study, this is the most common route. Funding is available for those who need it. There is a great variety of programs available, ranging from language training for newcomers, through adult literacy and high school upgrading to bridging programs for newcomer professionals.
Employers providing programs: The other route is through an employer. Many employers in Alberta rely heavily on immigrant labour and will pay for an organization such as NorQuest to design and deliver ESL programming. Other employers will hire their own trainers and develop their own in-house programs. Some have the good sense to hire ESL professionals as trainers, so they can develop very good programs that teach to the requirements of the organization. Finally, some newcomers work and take evening classes in language or literacy or numeracy, whichever they require.
The target group is very broad and is reflected in the programming. Immigrant professionals may require preparation for a high-level language test such as IELTS, or they seek to improve their speaking skills, soft skills, writing, or pronunciation. Others may be working at low level jobs and come to school to improve basic literacy and language skills.
What can you say about the occupational improvements that are a possible result of second language trainings at or for the workplace?
English in the workplace programs usually achieve little beyond making the employee a better and safer worker in his or her job. Programs aimed at professionals, such as engineers, usually generate more transferable skills, and they also involve the trainers, bosses, and co-workers of the immigrant worker, and therefore impart new competencies to a large number of people.
Our full time programs that aim to improve the global language or literacy skills are usually able to take the student farther – they may give access to further education. They are also more expensive and cannot be funded by a workplace that has no interest in educating the worker beyond his or her job requirements. Therefore such programs are government approved and funded, and the students are usually unemployed or underemployed or brand-new to the province.
Possible improvements: I would like to see a greater variety of delivery methods, such as distance, hybrid, electronic formats to give access to people who are now unable to attend programming because they work during the day or there is nothing available in their region. Alberta’s population is concentrated in the cities. Most programs are available only in cities or large towns. NorQuest is one of the few organizations to offer rural language training through a complex system of tutors supported by an itinerant program administrator and assessor who spends much of the year on the road counselling tutors, testing students, and developing materials.
Talking about workplace literacies, how does gender come into play?
More than 50% of the students in our ESL and Adult Literacy programs are women. Among the least literate students, the gender imbalance is even greater. In addition, many women are unable to access the programming that is available while their young families take precedence. Among our refugee population, literacy is a greater problem for the women, and it takes a long time for them to qualify for any type of employment, especially if they are older on arrival.
“The ones we are missing, the ones we don’t know about, are the ones we should worry about.”: Many women are isolated from the labour market. Workplace ESL programs often include a literacy component. Our long cooperation with the Levi-Strauss Corporation and with All Weather Windows were examples of ESL/literacy programs that addressed the needs of primarily female industrial workers. In my opinion, women who manage to get an industrial-type job are well on their way to gaining some independence and at least the opportunity to increase literacy skills. The ones we are missing, the ones we don’t know about, are the ones we should worry about. There are many women who are isolated from the labour market for a variety of reasons and who will never enter it without encouragement and support from their families as well as good quality programming. The cost to society of losing these women is high: their children are less likely to be successful in school and more likely to be in trouble with the law at some point in their lives.
We have been co-referees at the Metropolis Conference in a workshop on second language trainings at the workplace. Thinking back, is there a central difference that you find striking when you compare the programme developed by DIE in Germany and the programme you were talking about there?
I was impressed with the quality of the research that was carried out by DIE. I thought that taping the interaction in the workplace was innovative and useful. I would like to suggest that our EWP instructors add that to their needs assessment portfolio.
I think that in Germany, the sort of programming and the research carried out by DIE is relatively recent, and Germans are still learning how to cope with a large and permanent population group of language and literacy challenged people. In Canada, language and literacy needs are often found in citizens in remote and rural areas, aboriginal people whose mother tongue is not English or French, speakers of French in English Canada and vice versa, and of course large groups of immigrants. School completion rates are not so high as in Germany, so adult upgrading programs of various kinds have existed for a century or more.
Attitudes towards immigrants are usually positive in Canada: It has not been so difficult to add language education to the existing offerings of adult education. Also, attitudes towards immigrants in Canada are generally positive – Canada chooses about 88% of its newcomers based on their education, job skills, language skills and potential for integration. Only 12-13% of newcomers to Canada are refugees. Canada’s immigration policy sets the target for immigration at 1% per year. We rarely meet that target, but it sets the tone. As a result, Canada is drawing on a century of research and programming and experience in integrating newcomers into workplaces and educational institutions. That is the main difference.
Some ideas might be transferred to Germany: Canada’s investment in language and Essential skills frameworks will pay off in terms of aligning programs to a national framework, in portability of credentials and programs across the country and ultimately in efficiency when less programming will have to be developed from scratch.
I have included a number of web references here so that you can see for yourself if any of these resources can inform your work or even lighten it a little. I believe that many ideas are portable across borders and can be adapted to another culture and language.
Thank you very much for this extremely enlightening interview, Dorte!
Das Interview führte Bettina Kleiner.