Repeatedly recognized by Fortune Magazine as one of the "Top 50 Places to Work for Minorities," McDonald's has always made a habit of developing programs to ensure that career opportunities for the restaurant company’s diverse workforce are open to all. One such initiative is "English under the Arches."
Piloted last year, the 22-week program is geared toward high-potential first-level restaurant managers who have limited proficiency in the English language. The program employs a contextually based, work-place specific approach to language training.
Training recently spoke with Betsy McKay, director of bilingual leadership development, U.S. human resources, at McDonald's, about the program and its impact.
Training: Why did you launch English Under the Arches?
McKay: McDonald's has always prided itself on developing its people. Roughly 70 percent of our managers start as crew members, so we have a strong track record of promoting from within. Before launching the program, we had a number of very strong, operationally sound leaders in our restaurants who weren't proficient in English. We wanted to leverage their existing talent and give them a way to develop their skills in this area. We also recognized that the Hispanic workforce is the fastest growing employee segment in the country. If approximately 40 percent of our shift managers' jobs revolve around communication-related tasks, and English isn't a first language for some of them, they will be at a disadvantage. The goal of this program was to address that gap.
Training: What's innovative about this program?
McKay: Our first-level restaurant managers are the people who essentially "run the ship" in the restaurant. They all go through a very formal, highly structured manager development program, and English Under the Arches dovetails with that program. This means that as they are learning managerial skills such as setting targets, delegating tasks to crew members, working with other managers, giving feedback, and handling customer complaints, those enrolled in English Under the Arches also are simultaneously learning how to use those same skills while communicating in English.
The program differs from the traditional approach to ESL training in two fundamental ways.
First, all of the language literature and research proves that contextually-based, job-related ESL instruction is the fastest way to learn a language. So our program is contextually based. This means that language training is framed around the language of shift managers and is tied to their job responsibilities. To further reinforce this connection, we also assign participants a number of on-the-job practice activities within the restaurant environment.
Second, many employees have second jobs and family responsibilities after their shift ends, so sending workers to college on Tuesday nights to attend ESL classes, as many companies do, is impractical for our workforce. This program brings classes to the restaurant environment and allows participants to learn while they work. To do that, we opted for a blended instructional approach. Students enrolled in the program attend five hours of English class per week for 22 weeks. Three of those hours are spent in a virtual classroom environment, where they go into the crew room, log on to a website and pick up the telephone to attend an interactive, live class with 12-15 students from other restaurants. In addition, four-hour face-to-face classes are held a half dozen times throughout the program.
Training: What are the results thus far?
McKay: According to the experts, it typically takes 110 hours of instruction for students to move up one level on a standard national English proficiency test. In federally funded programs, 35 percent of students move up one level. In our program, 77 percent of students moved up one level, and 40 percent of students moved up two or more levels.
On the anecdotal side, the results have been tremendous. As part of our pilot program, we videotaped interviews with all of our students before, during and after the program. One young woman, in particular, comes to mind. During the first interview, the interviewer was doing a role-play exercise and told her in English that something was wrong with his sandwich. She didn't understand the statement, and immediately fell back to using Spanish. The interviewer asked her to try speaking again in English. She did so, but was hesitant. You could see the lack of confidence in her body language and hear it in her voice.
At the end of the program, we filmed her again, and you wouldn't have believed it was the same woman. She was sitting up straight and was full of confidence. When asked, "Are you satisfied with your progress?" her response was, "Oh, yes. So much has changed. My fellow mangers and other crew members see me differently now. I used to not want to answer the phone; now, I'm not afraid." She was subsequently promoted to a shift manager position. In fact, we have tracked all of our program graduates, and today, almost all of them have been promoted to a shift manager position or above.
Training: Any other tips you care to share with those interested in implementing something similar?
McKay: If companies base their ESL curriculum on the communications skills that employees use on the job, that will help students learn faster and more effectively.
McDonald's USA LLC is a restaurant company with headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. In 2008, it placed 37th on Training magazine's Top 125 list, an annual ranking of organizations that excel at human capital development.