How McDonald's Is Investing in Its Latino Employees

The company's "English Under the Arches" language training program puts nonnative employees on the promotion track.

This May 2, 2012, file photo shows a sign advertising job openings outside a McDonalds restaurant in Chesterland, Ohio. McDonald's said a key sales figure climbed 3.7 percent in August, as the fast-food chain emphasized the value of its menu offerings amid the challenging global economy (National Journal)

Break rooms in McDonald's restaurants across the country are being transformed into classrooms — part of a grand workforce-training experiment that is showing how investments in the future of your workforce can pay significant dividends, even for a corporate giant.

A few years ago, local owners of McDonald's franchises realized that some of their most promising workers, particularly Latinos, were hitting a roadblock in their advancement because they were lacking in English-language skills. Some restaurant owners publicized English as Second Language classes in their area, while others offered to pay expenses, but participation and results were spotty.

So Betsy Clark, McDonald's director of education strategies, set out to find a language-training model that could be deployed successfully at McDonald's locations nationally. After consulting with ESL experts around the country, she helped design and launch English Under the Arches, a language-acquisition program tailored for franchise owners and their employees.

The company's language training program directly confronts the critical challenge of equipping a more diverse workforce to maximize its talents at a time when minority communities are poised to contribute the vast majority of America's future workers. According to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanics alone are expected to contribute 74 percent of the nation's labor growth from 2010 to 2020. Mastery of English will, of course, be critical to these workers' success.

"Any program or model that gets employees work-ready and trained, that is culturally appropriate, and meets them where they are is very helpful," says Esther Aguilera, president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. "To learn the language of business and the customer is very important."

Under the program, individual franchise owners identify workers who could benefit from language training and ask them to participate. After an initial assessment, the employees take one of four courses — shift basics, shift conversation, shift writing, or conducting performance reviews. The courses run from eight to 22 weeks and are intended to teach workers the vocabulary and grammar they need to climb the next rung of the management ladder.

Because many McDonald's employees face budget, family, and time constraints, the training takes place primarily online in crew rooms. Students log onto a website and conference over the phone with an English instructor, who is recruited from a local community college, and trainees from other restaurants in the region. They are assigned on-the-job practice so the material stays fresh, and they meet every few weeks for an in-person class at an off-site training center.

Fredis Gutiérrez, who has worked at a McDonald's in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport for a decade, says graduating from the program in 2010 has made a significant difference in his life and work. He has since been promoted to store manager and has won the McDonald's Ray Kroc Award, named for its corporate founder and an honor bestowed on the top 1 percent of restaurant managers in the country.

"Before I took the class, I didn't feel confident to talk with people or with my customers, so there is a big difference between English Under the Arches and after," Gutiérrez says. "Now, I see more opportunities in my future and in this company."

One of the unique aspects of the McDonald's program is that employees don't lose out on wages when they participate, Clark says. Restaurant owners cover the costs of an instructor and pay workers their usual earnings for up to four hours of language training per week.

"If the owner-operator did not see a benefit in their investment, frankly, they wouldn't have continued to send students. That was really the driver as we were putting the whole concept together," Clark says. "It had to support itself. The benefit that the operators see is in the incredible confidence the employees gain, and that allows them to take on more responsibility."

The results and growth of the program have been striking since it was piloted in three locations in 2007. Today, English Under the Arches is offered in 44 locations nationwide and has graduated 2,500 employees. The graduation rate is an impressive 91 percent, with 84 percent of participants going up at least one level on an English-proficiency assessment. McDonald's also estimates that 95 percent of employees who graduate from the program increase their wages.

For restaurant owners, the benefits are manifested in boosted morale and increased retention rates — not usually selling points for the food-service industry. Eighty-eight percent of graduates stay on a year after finishing the class, and 84 percent are there two years later.

"All the characteristics are there of great leaders," Clark says. "We see steady growth because the need exists."