By Sheerin Vesin

It is no secret that communication and collaboration are cornerstones of the workplace, and these skills play a particularly critical role in the manufacturing and construction industries. However, little attention is paid to the impact that language proficiency (or lack thereof) can have on an employee’s ability to communicate effectively with their colleagues. We know that in the construction industry, specifically, language gaps can often prove fatal for workers. This is particularly true for Latino workers, whose fatality rate is nine percent higher than their non-Latino counterparts. Language gaps in the workplace can lead to accidents, which can negatively impact employers—and that is just the beginning.

Good communication: a crucial “raw material”

Effective communication is critical not only for safety reasons, but also because of its importance in fostering the kind of dialogue necessary to complete complex projects. Construction project teams are in a constant communication loop: project managers receive client expectations and design execution plans, then enlist the appropriate workers to help execute the project’s plans and goals. In order to effectively execute these plans, workers need sufficient comprehension and speaking skills – as well as the confidence – to ask clarifying questions. Otherwise, crucial aspects of the project may fall through the cracks. Sometimes these setbacks are small, but in cases that involve a great deal of technical work, such as installing complex plumbing and electrical systems, there can be serious delays in completion, causing significant financial ramifications.

Taking action

Smart companies are taking action to address language proficiency within their workforce to prevent setbacks that can result from lack of effective communication. Many have even begun integrating a language strategy into their overall business strategy. In doing so, it’s important for employers to note that there’s really no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution when it comes to language learning. Dr. Lisa Frumkes, Head of Language Learning Products at Rosetta Stone, explains: “Learners have a diverse range of needs and each person learns in their own way, at their own pace.” As such, digital learning programs can be a great option. The most sophisticated ones are very effective in adapting to learners, both in terms of content delivery and pace. When looking for resources to help aide your workforce, assessment should also be a key focus area, along with content and targeted instruction that addresses all skill levels. Rosetta Stone Catalyst is a great example of a new program in the marketplace that does just this.

How are construction companies getting out in front of the issue?

DPR Construction, a national technical builder specializing in highly complex and sustainable projects, has taken a decisively proactive role in improving the safety, productivity, and professional development of its workers. DPR enlisted the help of Rosetta Stone as part of a language learning initiative to help their employees build critical language skills that would benefit them both in and out of the workplace. The company particularly encouraged their Construction Craft Workers, many of whom primarily speak Spanish, to hone their English language skills in order to help them build the speaking confidence needed to conduct more in-depth dialogue with their colleagues.

The impact of miscommunication can sometimes be insignificant, but it can often be monumental. “It is not just about a wall looking uneven,” DPR’s Organizational Development manager, Robert Jackson, explains. “Seemingly minor understandings on the job site can potentially derail the on-time delivery of big projects.” DPR is taking all possible precautions to prevent miscommunication and the mistakes it can cause. “A language skills gap could cost our clients tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars if it is not addressed,” Jackson adds.

How behavior changed with better language skills

DPR managers quickly noticed a difference in employees who participated in the company’s language learning program. Non-native English speaking employees were more comfortable communicating with their colleagues, which empowered them to participate in more small-group conversations. When asked about specific instances where language training has made a difference, one DPR project manager explained: “One individual in particular comes to mind. He has made it to the Assistant Superintendent position and will possibly be promoted to a Superintendent role in the next few years. Now that his English language skills have improved, I have definitely seen an increase in his confidence, which has also improved his efficiency and his understanding of our expectations. Our industry is very collaborative, and as one rises through the ranks and take on more responsibilities, it is imperative to have a high level of confidence in one’s decision making.”

In fact, a recent global survey of more than 900 businesses worldwide revealed implementing language training is likely to increase employees’ confidence and productivity. Of the 1,185 respondents who work in the manufacturing, construction or automotive industries, 67 percent reported learning a new language has made them more confident in their work, and 71 percent felt their company took an interest in their professional and personal development because it provided language training.

It’s not just about profits… it’s also about people

For DPR, which operates under the belief, “Who we build is as important as what we build,” this rings particularly true. The company recognized that language training would be a valuable investment in their employees and would improve their opportunities for promotion. “We want to make sure that we are developing confident, competent employees,” says Jackson. “Language skills are a key part of that system.”

The company’s investment in its people speaks volumes of its commitment to the professional and personal development of all its employees, not just those in the highest-ranking positions. Their implementation of a language learning strategy ensures the company will have a pipeline full of confident, competent employees to deliver on the company’s ambitious goal of transforming the construction industry by 2020 – and fulfill the promise they have made to their workers.

Providing all employees with access to the support needed to succeed in their jobs is important for any employer, but the impact language barriers can have on a business’ productivity, efficiency, safety and many other areas—particularly in industries with a diverse, manual labor-driven workforce—should not be overlooked by managers. And while consulting firms and accounting firms may typically take home top accolades for their progressive, forward-thinking staff development programs, we should not overlook the bright spots of employee development taking place right here in the construction and manufacturing industries.

Sheerin Vesin is the HR practice lead for Rosetta Stone’s Enterprise & Education Marketing Group where she leads research and thought leadership in global human capital trends for Rosetta Stone’s growing B2B segment. Prior to joining Rosetta Stone in 2011, she held a variety of business development and marketing roles in the U.S. and Europe for a social technology start-up and a B2B publisher. Before joining the global business community, Vesin was a foreign language instructor with the French National Ministry of Education, where she developed an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) curriculum, and taught at multiple grade levels, including in higher education. She also has worked as a freelance French-English translator. Vesin was a finalist for the 2014 Women in Technology Rising Star award.

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