Viracon uses state grant to start an immigrant-targeted education program

December 5, 2006

Jim Wendorff

Q & A with Jim Wendorff

Officials from Viracon of Owatonna, Minn., announced Nov. 14 that the company received a $284,000 grant from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership Board, part of the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development, to start the Special Incumbent Worker Training Program aimed at its immigrant workers. In partnership with Riverland Community College in Owatonna, Viracon developed a program addressing subjects such as oral and written language, math and communication, says Jim Wendorff, vice president of human resources for Viracon.

What is the motivation behind an immigrant-targeted education and training program?
We really analyzed what the workforce was that we were hiring—what the trends were. We had a large minority workforce and have had great success attracting immigrant workers into our region. We have some very highly motivated, highly intelligent immigrant workers, but there are some gaps, primarily language. Some have very little formalized schooling. If this is our workforce that we are seeing, we asked how can we help accelerate people into positions of greater responsibility rather than have people exist in entry level jobs.

What is the make up of Viracon’s immigrant workforce?
We have a workforce of about 1,800, and 330 are immigrants. Of that 330, 80 percent are Hispanic, with most from Mexico, though about 16 different countries are represented total. We have also seen an influx of Africans—Somali and Sudanese. Some speak English, but of that majority Hispanic group, most have limited or no English skills.

The program is in three phases. Can you describe each in detail and explain how language, academics and technical skills are targeted?
The program is a three-year process. Phase one is to really do a thorough assessment of our immigrant workforce to find out exactly where we have gaps. We speculate that in addition to language [gaps], some will require more math learning, and some will probably need some writing and basic computer skills—some people are really not even familiar with the keyboard. I expect we’ll also see some differences in soft skill issues like problem solving, team building, communication and conflict resolution.

Phase two is developing the curriculum and actually seeing what workers are motivated by getting them through these classes. We may put people through some basic math classes and realize they’re not going to be able to do it. I expect we’ll start with 150 [participants] and end the year with 100 of the more motivated, more capable.

In phase three, we will identify what kind of aptitude people have. Someone might have more of a mechanical aptitude for working with tools, and we may steer them into a formal maintenance program. For someone who demonstrates more hard core leadership skills in supervision, delegating and a lot of conflict resolution, we may direct them into a lead position as the person who really directs the line and is accountable for 10 to 12 people. We’re also hoping that during this phase we’ll identify some people who are motivated to get a two-year degree.

Viracon is putting time, resources and money into this population. Are you concerned that some of these workers go through the program and then leave the company?
Certainly, we’re always at risk as we train people. But, we’ve been partnering with Riverland for close to 10 years, we have operated Viracon University and have onsite college classes. The people who participate have seen advancement in their career. They see that Viracon is trying to help them become better, and they see the company growing and know they have opportunities here. This program is actually going to make the roots deeper, especially for the minority group that is often pigeonholed in entry level positions. If they see a company that’s working hard with them, they are going to stay longer.

How important is the immigrant workforce to the glass industry?
I hate to speak for industry. But for Viracon, without an immigrant workforce available, we would have had a very hard time growing and continuing to grow in Owatonna. We would have had to look to other parts of the country. We live in a part of Minnesota that’s healthy with a lot of job opportunities—it’s just a challenge to get workers. Every employer sees that. What we see is people coming knocking on our door who don’t speak English. We’ve got to engage these people, because we’ve got jobs.

Read part one and part two of the e-glass Special Series on immigration.