There’s a huge need for talent in the advanced manufacturing sector – yet there were a few employers in the Merrimack Valley for which this has not been the case. Lawrence CommunityWorks, a community development corporation and United Way of Massachusetts Bay Strategic Partner, wanted to find out why. So they, along with the Lawrence Partnership, a nonprofit public/private partnership, conducted an employer survey. They found out that these companies were actually growing their businesses, surviving and thriving in competitive industries.
What set them apart? They were operating bilingually.
The Plan: A Course for Social Innovation
Jessica Andors, Executive Director of Lawrence CommunityWorks, Inc., wondered: what if they were to try and initiate a project to get employers to shift their culture and shift their business?
The idea stuck. As she explained, “It would open up job opportunities. If employees had on-the-job English classes, that would be an easier way to pick up language skills.” (English is a notoriously hard language to learn.) “Employers can take advantage of the current workforce, and eventually upscale them. That was the genesis of the initiative.”
The agency began to set forth on the project. They started talking to progressive employers, capturing their knowledge and experience. Then they started identifying and targeting employers who would benefit from shifting their business in this way.
Venture Funding Brings The Idea For A Bilingual Approach To Life
A longstanding partner of United Way, Lawrence CommunityWorks has collaborated with United Way for many years on projects like The Lawrence Financial Stability Center, a one-stop facility focused on family economic advancement. United Way has been proud to support the agency’s great thinking on how to help people in Lawrence achieve financial well-being, both through employment and working toward their financial goals.
So when United Way’s Venture Fund, held in collaboration with Aetna, launched, the agency knew they should apply. United Way’s Venture Fund offers a significant cash injection to put innovative plans into action. Andors believed theirs was an innovation worth the support.
“It’s a great match for this funding,” Andors says. “It gives us the ability to get the ball rolling on this project.”
The funding they won will drive change by giving them the capacity to support businesses making major transformations to their culture. These are just some the of changes Lawrence CommunityWorks is helping businesses undertake:
- Embracing a bilingual approach at the level of hiring. Does HR have bilingual capacity? Do they have the correct forms? Do they have a bilingual website?
- Changing shop floor operations. There’s machinery to operate. Does the employer have someone who can translate the instructions? Do they need vocabulary lists for pieces of machinery? What’s the protocol if something on the floor goes wrong?
- Supervision. Companies need employees who can speak Spanish to frontline employees, who can also communicate with management.
- Upscaling. Whether or not they speak English, a mechanical engineer is a valuable employee. Is the company teaching them English so they can advance?
It’s an ambitious project. But Lawrence CommunityWorks is up to the task. Andors says: “We have a theory of change: strong people, strong places, strong systems. It’s about investing in people. That’s where the organizing and workforce development comes from.”
She continues: “The work we do is naturally based in organizing people, in collaborating and working with partners. You need to be able to have multiple people at the table, you need multiple sectors, and people with multiple strengths in each of these areas. These are all pieces of the whole. You have to activate all these pieces to see the change you want to see.”
A substantial number of people could benefit from employers in the city embracing a bilingual approach. According to government data, almost 40% of Lawrence residents were born outside of the country. Nearly 51,000 Lawrence residents are Spanish speakers.
Andors hopes that over the next 2-3 years, the agency will have helped up to a half a dozen companies in the Merrimack Valley make the transition to operating bilingually. Collectively, these employers might represent up to a thousand jobs in the area. That would be a shift in the unemployment rate.
Andors says, “These are good jobs we’re talking about. With these jobs, you are getting much closer to a living wage for a family.” Andors also is excited for what she describes as the tipping point, for when manufacturers decided that a bilingual approach is simply how it’s done.
“Manufacturers are learning from each other,” says Andors, “and embracing this approach to a region taking advantage of its local talent. It becomes a virtuous economic cycle. We’re moving the needle on the unemployment rate, creating an identity as a region of embracing our immigrant population.”
She explains that being bilingual is an important asset for her own organization. Her staff is bilingual, as well. “It’s really important for both non-profits and for-profits…. The Latino population is a growing population.”
“It’s a beautiful reality that we grow stronger for embracing.”