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Program to teach tourism workers language skills expands

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Graduates of a pilot program to teach English to hospitality workers in Orange County are raving about the impact of the lessons on their lives and jobs, encouraging supporters to offer the classes to businesses outside the tourist district.

Multilingual teachers will work next year not only with hospitality workers at hotels and resorts on I-Drive but also with employees at Amazon’s fulfillment center on Boggy Creek Road and businesses inside the Orlando International Airport, said Jennifer Haddad, director of business partnerships with UCF Global, which provides the instructors.

Orange County funded instruction for the pilot program in the tourist corridor last year with $128,000 in tax revenue from the I-Drive Community Redevelopment Area, a special district requiring tax gains to be spent within its boundaries.

County commissioners approved a renewal of the program as part of the 2023-24 spending plan, based on funding recommendations of an advisory group that helps the commission identify and prioritize projects in the I-Drive area.

Tourist corridor participants next year include Paramount Hospitality Management, the Orange County Convention Center and the Hilton Orlando, all of which provide space, time and pay to employees enrolled in the language course called ESOL for Working Adults.

ESOL is short for English for Speakers of Other Languages.

Haddad said the program works because it has removed barriers that block workers who want to learn.

Workers are paid for their classroom time so they don’t have to choose between earning and learning. The classes are held at their workplace and during hours when they already have child-care arrangements in place.

“That’s the secret sauce,” Haddad said.

After learning about the success at Rosen properties, other hoteliers arranged to host the language classes.

“We experienced a tremendous amount of interest in the program,” said Johann Krieger, general manager of the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center which employs 1,300 workers on its 65-acre campus near Disney.

Krieger said the program has benefited both Gaylord Palms and its “stars,” the resort’s term for its hotel staff.

Instructors taught Gaylord enrollees words and phrases they need in everyday life and some that were “hospitality specific,” such as ‘May I get extra towels?,’ ” Krieger said. “It was an opportunity for our stars to grow language skills and an opportunity for us to drive guest service by supporting our customers in a more enhanced way.”

Employers outside I-Drive do not receive county funding and directly pay UCF Global for providing the classes.

Course instructors teach participants to listen, speak, read, write and pronounce English.

Yudhaimith Aguilar, a dishwasher at Gaylord Palms, expressed her gratitude for the program in Spanish and then in the English she learned in the program. “This was a different experience; I did not know English and now I can pronounce words and express myself,” she said. “What a great opportunity Gaylord Palms gave me to grow with the hotel.”

Franklin Antonio Perez, who took a foundational-level class through his employer, the Rosen Centre, credited the program for his improving English skills. The program helped him “get more closer to achieving my dream to go back to studying and earn a college degree to create a better future for my families and our community,” he said in an email.

Another Rosen associate, Karen Daza Corredor, dictated her insights to a co-worker who put them in an email: “This program was amazing! It has not only helped me communicate more effectively with my coworkers but also guests. Also, it has helped me create better friendships with my coworkers and around my community.”

Beginner classes are offered for workers with little to no proficiency in either English or their native tongue.

UCF Global offers more challenging classes for workers with better skills or as their skills improve.

Harris Rosen, president of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which operates seven properties and employs about 4,000 people, said he was proud of his employees.

“Serving overseas as an Army officer, I quickly recognized the importance of understanding the language of the country where I was serving,” said Rosen. “Making these classes accessible to our associates to attend, while on the clock, is critical to this program’s success.”