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Business Officer Magazine
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Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Antonio Calcado

RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES
Workplace Literacy Program Speaks Volumes, Delivers Value

What if a facilities employee doesn't hear or understand the difference between a drill bit and a fire drill-or realize that a deadline is "this" week, not "next week"? If you've ever studied another language, you know how easy it is to miss important details and nuances. That's the main reason why a workplace literacy program holds an important place in Rutgers University's operations.

The overall goal of the program is to improve the English communication skills of non-native English speaking facilities employees through a competency-based English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum.

The results over more than two decades include decreased staff turnover, fewer accidents, improved customer service, and more-confident employees who are prepared for higher-level positions.

Evolutionary Education

An early version of the literacy program was initiated in 1990, with funding by a federal grant. Project RISE (Rutgers Initiative for Skills Enhancement) originally included Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital; and St. Peter's University Hospital—all in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Administered centrally by Rutgers, the program focused on staff from the dining, housing, and facilities departments. Eventually, funding for the program ended, but Rutgers's facilities department leadership recognized the importance of literacy training, and, in 1997, established Project RISE as an integral part of its training initiative. The following year, Laubach Literacy International (now ProLiteracy) recognized RISE for "its strong dedication and support of the literacy cause."

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The Old Queen's building at Rutgers University

Voluntary, Valued

Language instruction is context-specific and directly linked to survival skills for the workplace. RISE's specific goals include reducing turnover and accidents; complying with safety regulations; enhancing customer satisfaction; and fostering better comprehension of instructions.

A voluntary activity, the literacy classes are open to all facilities staff at no cost, with sessions offered once a week, during work time, on the New Brunswick campuses, for both custodial shifts. Most of the participants are Spanish-speaking, but other languages represented include Chinese, Arabic, and Polish.

Barbara Meyer, facilities training coordinator and an instructor since 1998, is a passionate advocate for the participants in the program. Her unique teaching talents, enthusiasm, patience, and rapport with her students create a supportive learning environment.

The current enrollment is 70 staff divided into 10 classes. Administering a national standardized test for adult learners, at the beginning and end of the year, enables Meyer to classify employee skill levels and document improvement. Individual attention is the norm, allowing students, some of whom are illiterate even in their native language, to progress at their own pace.

Words Work Wonders

Mastering English and gaining self-confidence have enabled students to apply for and be promoted to higher-level positions. Three former custodians who participated in RISE are now supervisors in the department. Others have been promoted to group leaders. Several students arrived here with degrees and/or certifications from their native countries, but could not speak English. Two of them became proficient enough to complete the craft trainee program and are now mechanics in our mechanical maintenance and planning department.

In addition to their ESL coursework, interested custodians take part in citizenship preparation with Meyer. Since 1998, 60 employees have gained U.S. citizenship, which is very gratifying to them and to our department.

Over the past six years, we've experienced a 20 percent reduction in resources, and yet we've kept this initiative whole. The costs of the program—the instructor's salary and teaching materials—are minimal compared to the benefits participants realize in their work and their personal lives. Investing in entry-level staff, who have not had the benefits enjoyed by most of us who work and attend classes here, is the least we can do.

SUBMITTED BY Antonio Calcado, vice president, facilities and capital planning, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick