Original URL:  http://www.azcentral.com/abgnews/articles/0424english24.html

English taught to office cleaners
Pro-Serve wants to help workers Advance on job

Arizona Business Gazette
Apr. 24, 2003 12:00 AM
Ryan F. Gabrielson

Rich Lyons knew that all he had to do to make his employees happier and more loyal was give them the skills to leave.

Lyons, president of Pro-Serve Commercial Cleaning, has about 270 employees cleaning about 40 office buildings across the Valley each night.

Eighty percent of those workers are entry-level cleaners, of which the vast majority are Mexican immigrants who can say little more than "thank you" in English.

In the United States, Lyons said, English proficiency is the foundation of advancement. So rather than just hiring from outside the company for his managerial positions, he decided to invest in the people he had.

Every Saturday, free to the employees, a class at the company's headquarters in north Phoenix teaches English to the Spanish-speakers. Workers who attend are first in line for promotion and he said he has seen a decrease in turnover.

After building a client-base that owns about 3.5 million square feet of space across the Valley, Lyons said he realized that customer service for them did not extend beyond their nightly duty and that more attention needed to be paid to the employees.

Lyons said he did not want to see his business as a clearinghouse for people who needed work for a short time. He wanted a community within his company.

"If they're willing to invest time into a career, we're here," Lyons said.

About a year ago, he contacted Rio Salado's Adult Basic Education program for setting up a class.

Star Carleton, who teaches the English course, said the program has been slow to start, but word is spreading through the company.

About 40 employees participate and are broken up into two classes depending on their mastery of English. The first, for beginning speakers, runs from 8 to 10 a.m. and the second, which focuses more on reading and writing, is the two hours after that.

"I'm very impressed with the support this company is giving to these students," Carleton said.

Lyons and other Pro-Serve managers participate in the class, showing up every Saturday to demonstrate their commitment, she said.

Such a commitment is rare in companies hiring immigrants, said Arturo González, a University of Arizona assistant professor of Mexican-American studies.

"I think that's really innovative," González said. "Usually this kind of training is not done by companies."

Employers of manual laborers usually see any kind of education as a threat that their employees may leave for less physically demanding and better paying positions, he said.

"English is a sign of settlement among (Mexican) immigrants," he said. Having their employer offer them this education allows immigrants to establish themselves much more quickly than they would otherwise.

And it's more profitable for the workers: In general, Mexican immigrant men who can speak English earn 15 to 20 percent more than those who do not, González said. But "for women it's different. English proficiency is a sign of entry into the labor market."

Carleton said there are as many women in the classes as men.

Sometimes the workers come to the class asking what they should say to people when in a convenience store, and recently they wanted help in understanding how to file their taxes, Carleton said.

"It's interesting the things that touch their lives that we take for granted," she said.

Though she said there are a few other companies with similar opportunities for its employees, Pro-Serve is unique for its level of commitment.

Lyons said the teacher is the one who deserves the credit.

"Star is loved and respected in the office. She's been phenomenal," Lyons said. "(Being) positive is the key word because (class) can drag because it's a Saturday morning."

Though the classes are small now, he said news of the opportunity is spreading via word of mouth. Soon they hope to open an advanced section of the class.