By Jason Margolis

If the immigration bill being debated by the Senate this week becomes law, millions of immigrants eager to become legal residents will need to learn English. It’s also currently a requirement for passing the citizenship exam.

But studying is a daunting task for people working multiple jobs, and budget cuts to adult education make finding a class difficult.

Volunteer tutors at Google team up with the company's janitors in weekly English classes and independent study. (Jason Margolis/KQED)
Volunteer tutors at Google team up with the company’s janitors in weekly English classes and independent study. (Jason Margolis/KQED)

Consider the case of Daniel Montes. When he was 18, Montes moved to the Bay Area from Mexico. Everything was an adjustment, but nothing was more difficult than the new language.

“It would be equal to losing your voice and not being able to speak from one day to the next,” he said.

Montes found work as a janitor. He said he remained virtually silent at work for two years until he found an ESL class in a church in San Jose.

“It was a big commitment, and it was very difficult physically to sustain,” he said. “There were times when I would lose my pencil because I was so tired from working two jobs.”

That was in the late 1970s. Today Montes runs Brilliant General Maintenance, a company in San Jose. He has about 300 janitors on his staff, most of whom are immigrants like him. Montes said he’s glad his employees have an easier path to learn English.

Thirteen years ago, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents janitors in California, struck a bargaining agreement with contractors like Montes. Employers up and down the state now contribute a few extra pennies per hour worked toward training programs — everything from health education to new parenting classes to English instruction.

Companies must independently agree to allow classes at the worksite, and many firms are allowing them in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the past two years, a growing number of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies — Facebook, Cisco and Google among them — have agreed to transform boardrooms into classrooms.

I visited a class at Google’s Mountain View campus, where student janitors were taking classes with a trained teacher and also working one-on-one with volunteer tutors who are Google employees. One student and tutor arrived early in the morning, an hour before their shifts started. Classes also take place at night.

“Before I worked here, I had three works (jobs), and I didn’t have time for school,” said Edith De la Rosa, a janitor originally from Mexico. She started taking classes at Google last year.

The convenience of learning English at the workplace isn’t just benefiting janitors; It helps the companies as well. A Google manager I met expressed his support for the training program. But he preferred that I let the janitors do the talking.

De la Rosa said she certain she’s a better employee now.

“Every day I learn two or three words. It helps me in conversations with the clients. For example, ‘Excuse me, do you know who is fixing the toilets or the lights, or something?’ And I say, ‘Oh no, the water has come to the floor, oh yeah, I do it. Let me take something to clean it up.’ ”

Even that basic conversation would have been impossible last year.

But companies like Google are under no obligation to open their buildings to the janitors. And many Bay Area companies are refusing.

“It’s surprisingly hard to sell (the English program) because it’s a subcontracted workforce. Often the corporations that employ (the janitors) indirectly don’t even want to hear or talk about it,” said Alison Ascher Webber, associate director of the nonprofit Building Skills Partnership. Her company coordinates the English classes.

“It’s not (the corporation’s) bottom line, it’s not what they do,” she said. “They’re just about numbers on a finance sheet. As long as the rooms are clean, it’s all about cutting costs.”

Webber mentioned Intel and Chevron as two companies that have refused the program. I sent multiple emails and placed phone calls to both Intel and Chevron to ask about the English-learning program. Neither responded.

Webber called this attitude shortsighted. She stressed that Silicon Valley increasingly needs midlevel managers: “How are we going to get people to check the water systems at the sewage treatment center? How are we going to get people to become firemen, be metal workers and machinists?”
English will allow immigrants to step into those positions. But learning English in California has become increasingly difficult.

Over the past five years, adult education budgets have been slashed by some 60 percent statewide across local districts where beginning adult ESL classes are traditionally taught. Five years ago, the San Jose school district had 10,000 adults enrolled. Today, there are less than 2,500 adult learners.

Community colleges can’t pick up all that slack either. With these severe cutbacks, that makes English-language learning in boardrooms all the more critical.

  • mittendrin

    Come on, It’s SiliCON, not SiliCONE!

  • In our experience, English classes benefit employees AND employers. When given a chance to take English classes at work, employees gain confidence in their communication (leading to more efficient work) and feel valued because their employers are willing to spend money on this kind of training. We see it as a win-win.

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