ATD Blog

Workforce English Training: Customization to Improve Job Performance and Achieve High ROI

Thursday, February 23, 2017

As you deal with workforce development in your organization, is English capability an issue? Do you have staff in given positions who need better English to do their jobs more effectively? Have you tried different approaches and vendors for English training, but none of them has produced the results you’re looking for? Are English instructional materials you’ve seen been too generalized or academic, instead of being specific to your industry sector and workplace operations? 

What other issues have you faced in trying to improve the English of your workforce? How have you handled these issues? What were the outcomes? What have you learned that you would do differently now? What issues or questions do you still have? 

If you are dealing with any of these concerns, it may be helpful to learn that, in the field of language training, there is a relatively new specialization known as English for the workforce. It is different from learning English in ways you may already be familiar with. For example, you may have listened to a lot of music, movies, or videos in English and come to understand quite a bit of what was going on. Or you may have taken some general English classes with a standard textbook on topics about everyday consumer communication. Or you or your family members or friends may have studied academic English more formally for a particular discipline, such as business English, legal English, computer English, or medical English. You might have had to accomplish academic language tasks such as classroom interaction, reading print and online content, writing up reports or research, and taking tests. 

Workforce English, by contrast, is all focused on the language of the workplace and job performance. Key domains are administration, operations, social responsibility, and human resources. English teachers typically don’t know about your industry or individual company. So they have to be trained in how to carry out systematic needs assessments and continuously collaborate with managers, technical experts, target learners, and co-workers. Based on all the information they gather, and working with you, they arrange a customized program design and develop customized training materials.  

This may seem like a lot of extra time and budget, but result is a lot more efficient. A general English textbook may have a lesson about directions to the bank or museum or park or bus stop. Why not create a lesson about directions around your oil camp or manufacturing plant or hospital or hotel? Or about how to make a sales presentation, or speak up in a meeting, or repair equipment from written instructions, or reply to your supervisor’s email? Such targeted lessons address real job performance. They get at the improvements you are looking for. They produce results. As this investment solves problems that are costly to your operations—misunderstandings, mistakes, customer complaints, do-overs, wasted materials, wasted time, rehiring—these costs come down. In fact, workforce English programs are documented to lead to compelling return on investment, as high as 147-531 percent. They can even save lives. 

Case in Point 

Avianca 052 is flying from Medellin, Colombia, to New York City. It is delayed en route by bad weather, has used up fuel reserves, and needs priority to land. The pilot radios the tower that they’re “just running out of fuel.” But he doesn’t use the required technical phrases, minimum fuel or emergency fuel, that trigger an immediate, prescribed response: Hold all other flights at elevation or on the tarmac; direct the plane to an outlying runway; dispatch ambulances, foam trucks, and fire engines; and alert receiving medical emergency crews in the airport and at the nearest local hospital. The tower had to spend valuable extra time trying to clarify the status of fuel. The pilot failed the first landing attempt and, before he could complete a second, the plane crashed, killing 73 on board, including the pilots. 

While there were several contributing factors to this tragic incident, one such factor was language usage. Critical communication and response could have been more efficient if the pilot had been trained in the workforce English terminology of his industry sector (minimum fuel or emergency fuel), instead of thinking that a general English expression (just running out of fuel) was good enough. 


Workforce English has developed international standards, or best practices, that include a sequence of activities to be followed. The full list is given below but the first four, in particular, involve collaboration between language trainer and client. (The language trainer is largely responsible for the latter four, but will check with clients about even these during development and implementation.) 

  1. Conduct an organizational needs assessment. 
  1. Conduct an instructional needs assessment. 
  1. Determine an appropriate program design. 
  1. Identify and arrange program administration and staffing. 
  1. Create an instructional design and curriculum. 
  1. Select and develop customized training materials. 
  1. Deliver training. 
  1. Evaluate course and program, and apply recommendations. 

Workforce English Training Best Practices 

So corporate training managers need to become not only aware of and more knowledgeable about workforce English, but also skillful at collaborating with workforce English professionals in each of the following best practices.  

Organizational needs assessment involves meeting with upper management to gain overall information about the company and how English is used in general operations. It will also be helpful if managers are prepared to describe specific issues the company is experiencing with English limitations on the job, and how success will be measured. In this discussion, the workforce English professional can explain more about workforce English and how the company’s concerns can be addressed. It is important to achieve buy-in and agree on a plan forward. 

Instructional needs assessment is the next step that involves gathering information about the particular needs of target trainees. What tasks do they do in their jobs? And what English do they need to do these tasks? As above, all this information is needed to customize the program design and training content. Some people think they can skip this needs assessment, but it is the most reliable way to discover issues they may need to address. 


For example, on a cruise ship crew members wear a name badge. On the back are two numbers that represent instructions to give in an emergency: 

  • Take stairway 7 to lifeboat 42. 
  • Or take an alternative, if stairway 7 is on fire or lifeboat 42 has already left.

During needs assessment, it was discovered that 95 percent of a 601-member crew did not know what their safety numbers were and did not know how to deliver the instructions in English (the international language of maritime communication). 
Program design factors include whether to start with a pilot program or a broader program, and such details as scheduling and modes of delivery. The appropriate decision makers need to bring their knowledge and judgment about operations to bear to work out all these design factors. The corporate side, in turn, needs to be coordinated with the realities and requirements of sound language training design from the workforce English side. 

Typically, in training, a great deal of attention is given to training content and materials. But the best course can be rendered ineffective if a sound program design is not put in place as a foundation. Consider a program in Afghanistan in which government ministry staff needed to learn English to take technical training from international experts being brought in to Kabul. The technical training was scheduled for six days, so the planners scheduled the English training program for six days. Given that the overall English proficiency level of the staff—and even their level of Roman alphabet literacy—were unknown, it was highly unlikely that the expected goal of learning English well enough to understand technical training could be achieved in six days, no matter how well constructed the training materials might have been. 

Program administration and staffing will likely take some extra time. As above, most English teachers, both local nationals and those from other countries, will need training in how to do workforce English. So, it is wise and realistic to plan for at least some brief period of upfront teacher training and build in continuing professional development and support.

Customization, as embodied in workforce English, has been the watch word throughout this discussion. May it bring you real results and solve costly problems that you haven’t been able to achieve in your previous efforts.

Please share your experience, questions, and comments about workforce English in the Comments below. I am eager to engage with all of you.

About the Author

Anne Lomperis specializes in language planning and language policy for the labor force in developing countries. She consults with four categories of clients to improve English capability for economic development and global competitiveness: international organizations, national government ministries, businesses of all sizes, and aid agencies. Anne spearheaded a nine-year initiative to develop best practices in workforce English with four co-authors and representative review teams from 45 countries. They published their findings in 2003, with a technology update in 2014. She founded the Language Training Forum of ASTD in 1995 (when there was a forum structure in place). She also works to establish workforce English teacher training programs through partnerships between local national universities and U.S. universities. Dual certification is a future goal. Anne was born and raised in South India through high school graduation. As an adult professional, she has worked in 19 countries with a wide range of industry sectors and clients. She redesigned the language training program of Peace Corps/Philippines (with 101 languages), conducted a national assessment of English in industry for Egypt, has recently completed a four-year project for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and is now in negotiations for projects in Colombia and Myanmar. Learn more about Anne at

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