Fast-Food Restaurants Tackle Employees' English Skills

Spanish-speaking employees are being treated to English lessons by employers in the service industry. Jack in the Box and other restaurants are offering language training in hopes of improving employee and customer satisfaction.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays, the business report focuses on your workplace. More and more workplaces have Spanish-speaking workers. Because of that, companies are finding they need to do something about workers' English skills to reduce turnover and improve customer service. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what's happening at Jack in the Box restaurants.

(Soundbite of kitchen noises)

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Ariselli Hernandez(ph) moved to California from Mexico City two years ago. She quickly found work in the kitchen of this Orange County Jack in the Box.

Ms. ARISELLI HERNANDEZ (Jack in the Box Employee): I'm to start prepping, prep the lettuce, tomatoes and then I ...(unintelligible) fryer and then cashier and then I'm learning to cook.

HORSLEY: Hernandez is also learning to speak more English, thanks to a take-home teaching tool adapted from a child's toy. It's a battery-operated LeapPad tablet with interactive textbooks designed specifically for Spanish-speaking hospitality workers.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: First I have to turn on.

(Soundbite of LeapPad program)

Unidentified Male Voice: (Spanish spoken). Welcome to book one of Sed de Saber.

HORSLEY: Sed de Saber, or Thirst for Knowledge, was developed by an Orange County company called Retention Education. The vocabulary covers a variety of work skills and everyday life skills. Workers practice by recording their own voice and comparing it to a pronunciation model.

(Soundbite of LeapPad program)

Unidentified Female Voice: Excuse me.

Unidentified Woman: Excuse me.

Unidentified Woman: (Recorded) Excuse me.

Unidentified Male Voice: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Female Voice: Excuse me.

Unidentified Woman: (Recorded) Excuse me.

HORSLEY: In the last 10 months, Retention Education has sold about 20,000 of the English kits. Restaurant chains like Chili's and Carl's Jr. have become language labs, along with Hilton and Hyatt Hotels. Jack in the Box bought more than 4,000 of the kits, at least two for each of its restaurants. The training's voluntary. Vice president Mark Blankenship says employees have responded enthusiastically.

Mr. MARK BLANKENSHIP (Vice President, Jack in the Box): They felt that the company cared about them because really it was all about personal development. This wasn't something the company said, `You need to do this to keep your job' or anything like that. It was really about the company saying, `We're going to provide a vehicle for you if you're interested to, you know, expand your horizons.'

HORSLEY: Jack in the Box spent close to a million dollars, or about 5 percent of its profits last quarter, buying the Sed de Saber kits. The company thinks the investment will pay off in reduced worker turnover and improved customer service. At the restaurant where Hernandez works, manager Katie Morgan proudly shows off the four customer service awards her team has won. Morgan, who is an Indian immigrant, says about 80 percent of her workers speak a native language other than English.

Ms. KATIE MORGAN (Manager, Jack in the Box Restaurant): There are a few of us that speak English only, but of the ones that native language is not English, they still speak English, even if it's broken English. They can communicate to me what they want, especially their time off.

(Soundbite of LeapPad program)

Unidentified Female Voice: Anna, can I change my shift on Wednesdays?

Unidentified Male Voice: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Female Voice: Shift on Wednesdays?

Unidentified Woman: Shift on Wednesdays?

HORSLEY: The kits are designed for workers to study on their own time and at their own pace. Hernandez practices for about half an hour after her shift each day, and she gets some extra help from her siblings who've lived in the US longer.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: My brother talks perfect English, my brother and my sister. And they talk to me in English, too, every time, so that help me. And I (unintelligible) songs in English. I love The Beatles. Yeah.

HORSLEY: Hernandez's manager says she seems more confident speaking English now. She's on the second-to-last of the workbooks, and while the material is more difficult, Hernandez knows she can do it.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Because we are in the USA, so we have to learn English. It's important to get a good job.

HORSLEY: Co-workers at the restaurant are lined up to use the language kit as soon as Hernandez finishes. Meanwhile, Retention Education is planning additional workbooks tailored for the construction trades. The company is also working on a course to help employers and other English speakers learn Spanish.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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