employee engagementOperationsStaffStaff Education

Empower Your Employees With ESL

I am a New York City certified English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.  I taught at high schools in the Bronx and Manhattan in the years before my oldest son was born; I taught all grades and all levels.  Many of my favorite students were newcomers – kids who just moved to NYC from a different country and had little prior English knowledge.  I majored in education at NYU and continued at NYU for my master’s in ESL, but before ever teaching or entering college, I had years of informal experience with ESL, because I worked in restaurants with men and women who were in the process of learning English.

The restaurant industry is famously immigrant-friendly.  In fact, a Pew Research Center study found that undocumented immigrants make up 11% of bar and restaurant employees, and, as reported by an American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau, 8% of all foreign born workers in the US work in the restaurant industry.  With such a diverse employee population, if restaurants aren’t already thinking about offering English language support, they should start. 

With restaurants having a higher than average turnover rate for private sector businesses, topping out at 74.9% in 2018, ESL instruction could be a way to retain employees.  When Meatheads, a burger chain based in Chicago, identifies a non-native English speaker who shows leadership potential, that employee is given access to English classes and is then more likely to be promoted within the company.  This program has helped Meatheads lower its turnover rate to just 30%. 

Other restaurants, such as Tacombi in New York City, have started offering English classes in-house.  Through ESL Works, a company dedicated to bringing ESL instruction directly to restaurant employees, Tacombi offers classes to interested employees free-of-charge.  By investing in employee education, ESL Works founder Rachael Nemeth believes restaurants are saving money in turnover costs while empowering future industry talent. 

If you don’t have the capital to invest in a formal program, there are other ways to help your employees improve their English.  Good, old-fashioned books require minimal investment, but can be useful resources.  Additionally, native-English speaking employees may volunteer to work with English Language Learners (ELLs), and maybe a small incentive can be offered to the volunteers and the students.  Another easy exercise is role-playing; offering ELLs opportunities to practice their English in low-stress situations can be very helpful.

Employees in learning English can also improve customer satisfaction.  Customers will appreciate being able to clearly communicate with all employees, and employees will offer better service when they’re comfortable speaking and understanding English. 

With all the benefits to the restaurant and the employee, ESL should be a growing service in the hospitality industry.  Help lead the way by implementing a program that works for you.


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