Ruben Colon was hard at work in the packaging department of the Piantedosi Baking Company when the company’s co-owner, Bob Piantedosi, happened through. He stopped to ask Colon about his family and learned he had two daughters.

“You have no boys?” inquired Piantedosi, the father of sons himself.

“No, girl is good,” Colon replied. “Boys? Too much problem!”

It was the kind of banter you’d expect in a friendly workplace. But this exchange – between an entry-level worker and the owner of a 200-employee company – would have been impossible when Colon started at the bakery seven years earlier.

At the time Colon, a native of Puerto Rico, had been living in the United States for four years and knew little to no English.

“I said ‘yes’ to everything!” Colon said, cringing.

But at Piantedosi Baking Company, Colon was able to take advantage of a unique opportunity: English classes provided at his workplace, during work hours, on the clock and fully paid. The classes were provided through Piantedosi’s collaboration with the Asian American Civic Association (AACA).

Ruben Colon in the Piantedosi Baking Company conference room, where he takes English classes.

“We’re providing a service these employees may not otherwise be able to access,” said Justine Wang, workplace education coordinator at AACA. “Many immigrant workers have family obligations or may work two jobs. They’re not able to participate in classes offered outside of work.”

So how is this model made possible? The collaboration between AACA and Piantedosi was initially supported through the Commonwealth’s workplace education program, which steers state and local funds to projects of up to three years. (In this arrangement, employers have the option of paying 50 or 100 percent of employees’ wages during class hours; Piantedosi chose to pay 100.) Now in its fifth year, the collaboration currently draws on the Workforce Training Fund, which requires 100 percent release time. This fund is fed by businesses’ payments into the state’s unemployment insurance fund.

“We want to help employers understand that there are grant opportunities available to them,” Wang said. “A lot of employers don’t know that they can access this money. The instruction provided by the Workforce Training Fund isn’t an additional cost for the employer, because they’ve already paid for it.”

Plus, English instruction providers like AACA are able to customize their lessons to the specific language demands of a particular workplace. At Tufts Medical Center, for example, AACA’s lessons help workers meet regulations around infection control and food safety. The classes are also designed to help employees advance their careers at the hospital.

“The curriculum is focused on career exploration and careers in healthcare,” said Jessica Jacob, workforce development specialist at Tufts Medical Center. “We have a couple of employees who had medical credentials from their home countries. We’re helping them get into opportunities here at the medical center now that their English is at a higher level.”

The focus on career development reinforces employee loyalty. Jacob said that the hospital has seen increased retention among employees who are enrolled in the classes compared to those who are not. Piantedosi Baking Company has seen similar staying power among its employees, whose average tenure with the company is about 15 years.

“We’re educating people so that they’re comfortable here, proficient in their jobs, and able to grow with the company,” said Lauren Fazio, Piantedosi’s vice president of human resources. “We don’t want people to just be moving pans and boards all day. We want them to get to the next level in their careers.”

Italian immigrants gave Piantedosi Bakery its start. New waves of immigrants are giving it its future.

The Piantedosi Baking Company has more or less run on immigrant advancement throughout its 103-year history. Founded by immigrant Salvatore Piantedosi, the company relied on the labor and expertise of Italian arrivals through much of the 20th century. In more recent years, the bakery’s immigrant workers have come mainly from Latin America and Asia. But their hopes remain the same: To secure a foothold to a better life.

Colon is gaining his. Now in his third year of English classes at the company, he can help his older daughter with her homework and translate for his wife if she needs help at the store or hospital. At the bakery, Colon has been promoted to group leader. He checks every aspect of quality control, records his findings in English, and communicates regularly with his English-speaking supervisor.

“Before I take the class, I don’t talk too much to my boss. Now, I talk too much to my boss,” Colon said, laughing.

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