Special Sauce for ESL

How McDonald's and a community college professor teamed up to teach English to growing immigrant population.
May 27, 2009

AUSTIN, TEX. -- While English as a Second Language courses are offered nationwide, many businesses that hire non-English speaking employees report that those workers can't or won't enroll, and that as a result their opportunities for advancement are limited.

Over the last two years, McDonald's has worked with a professor at the College of Lake County to pioneer English Under the Arches, which the company and the college hope can change this dynamic. McDonald's is taking the program national, and recruiting community colleges to set up branches of the program -- which is paid for entirely by local McDonald's franchise owners. Data from the early test versions of the program show significant gains in English language skills of participants, leading some involved to hope that this could also produce new students for associate programs at community colleges.

The efforts were described here Tuesday at the annual meeting here of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, a top meeting of community college faculty members and administrators.

McDonald's set up the program after finding that previous efforts didn't work. Some restaurant owners publicized local ESL programs. Some even paid expenses, but participation and completion rates weren't impressive, said Betsy McKay, director of bilingual leadership for the company. Further, she said that no effort seemed "scalable" such that it could be adopted nationwide. Many entry-level jobs at McDonald's go to people who don't speak English and they can do quite well, especially in neighborhoods where the customers are all Spanish-speaking, McKay said.

"Immigrants, whether they have English or not, are going to be a driving force in the economy," she said.

At McDonald's, which has a tradition of promoting from within, the issue of English hits as employees come up for the entry-level manager's position -- one for which English truly is needed even in neighborhoods where the customers don't primarily speak English. Finding "star" employees whose careers were hitting a wall, McDonald's convened a group of language experts and ended up getting referred to Suzanne Leibman, associate professor of English as a Second Language at the College of Lake County, a community college in Illinois.

Leibman has done extensive work with ESL programs, and welcomed the assignment, and so she worked with a group from McDonald's to plan three different courses in English that would be offered through a mix of in-person and online training. When designing ESL for jobs, instructors go to the work site to listen to conversation -- and for Leibman, McDonald's was a new experience. She's an observant Jew who keeps kosher, so while she understood the basic concept of fast food, she's never had a Big Mac -- but now she has seen them prepared and watched workers go about their routines.

The courses cover three categories of skills: shift basics, shift conversation, and shift writing -- as the managerial jobs into which the students want to advance involve them managing a shift, which means supervising employees, responding to customers or vendors, and dealing with whatever comes up. McDonald's franchise owners pay the costs for their employees to take the course, and funds ($130 for the basic course, $350 for the conversational course and $300 for the writing course) go to the community college that hires instructors. The restaurant owners also let the students do the courses while on the clock, so the students receive their hourly pay for the program. For all three courses, three hours of classes are held a week, either in training or office areas of the restaurants, and there is a one hour virtual class as well as practice time on the job.

"These are folks with two full-time jobs. They can’t go to a class on Tuesday night. We needed a design that was going to come to them,” McKay said.

The students must be nominated by their restaurants' owners, who are effectively saying "I want you to be able to be a manager," which is a key incentive, she added.

The skills covered include vocabulary, sentence structure, listening, message taking and writing, and the role that all of these communication skills have on managing workers and dealing with customers who have a range of issues, from basic questions to complaints.

Leibman said that a number of choices were made to reflect the needs of the students. Classes are synchronous so students are always in groups of others with similar language skills. Longer sessions are held about once a month -- with a goal of having at least one of the longer sessions at a community college to get students more comfortable going there. And exercises are all directly related to job duties, so students can see the relevance to their jobs and advancement potential. Leibman and McDonald's designed the course modules and did some test runs in 2007. In 2008, more than 100 students participated, and the company expects more than 300 this year, with the numbers continuing to climb.

Most of the students are women, are over 25 and have minimal formal education. Only about half have earned at least a high school degree.

McKay said that because the decisions to pay for the courses come from the individual franchises, not corporate headquarters, the company asked how these restaurant owners would define success. Most said that they didn't care about averages or any formal grade, but that they wanted measures of on-the-job skills using English.

Here are results from 2008

English Skills Before and After Training

Skill Before After
Talk with supervisor about work 41% 70%
Talk with co-workers about work 50% 74%
Talk with co-workers about myself 39% 72%
Small talk 24% 59%
Read directions or work orders 39% 77%
Call in when sick 64% 92%
Understand how the company works 40% 74%
Answer the phone 44% 89%
Write notes in imperfect English 29% 62%
Write notes in pretty good English 11% 40%

McKay and Leibman both stressed that these skill levels -- while they may seem basic to college professors -- represent substantial growth for the individuals involved, and the difference for many of them between further career advancement or staying stagnant. McKay said that from a business perspective, businesses like McDonald's can't run without people who don't speak English, and that programs like this avoid having a system in which those employees never advance. McKay said that while parts of the curriculum are McDonald's-specific, she would like to share other parts -- and the approach -- with other companies.

Leibman said that from her perspective, this represents the service of her community college, through which the program is run to its residents -- including both the small business owners who run McDonald's restaurants and their workers who don't know much English. On the last day of the program, Leibman said that she gives each student information on how to enroll in other courses at her college and -- for those from other community college districts -- their college.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top