Chief Learning Officer tells the story of how Tyson Foods developed their Upward Academy learning program. They suspected that ESL classes would be helpful to their Springdale plant’s workers. They decided to give it a shot, expecting 10 or 15 people to show up for free English classes. 128 came on the first night — out of a workforce of 300. Deciding they were onto something, Kevin Scherer, senior manager of the team, got permission to offer classes at a second plant. 250 showed up at the larger plant.
“It wasn’t a fluke,” Scherer told Chief Learning Officer. “The rest is history.”
Tyson looked for community partners to work with to offer English as a Second Language classes at their facilities. They also wanted to help their workers with some of the areas of work and daily life that can be hard to manage with limited English literacy. Workplace literacy helps ensure that the team members have the stability and confidence in their lives to work well. Tyson knew this would increase worker confidence in the company, as well, and help Tyson maintain a happy, stable workforce.
Team members from the Ozark Literacy Council visited the Tyson facility before and after work shifts — sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m. They introduced themselves to Tyson workers in their native languages and helped them sign up for the program.
Then they conducted classes in break rooms and meeting rooms. Other workers had the chance to see the classes and understand that their fellow team members were enjoying themselves and learning useful skills. This kept new students coming into Upward Academy.
The classes are designed to suit the needs of the workplace, focusing on vocabulary needed for the participants’ jobs.
Upward Academy now has more than 1,000 participants across four states. They stick with the program because it improves their quality of life, with 85% saying that they are happier in the workplace now. The Academy has proved itself good for business, too. After six months, worker surveys recorded real improvements. Participants show less turnover, and 77% say they feel more loyalty to the company.
The Ozark Literacy Council continues to work closely with Tyson staff outside of class time to make sure the training stays relevant to the needs of the participants. Upward Academy is now in 26 locations, with other literacy organizations partnering outside of Northwest Arkansas. OLC remains in the forefront of the initiative.