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One thing is clear from West Michigan business owners: the labor market is tight. With an unemployment rate of 4% as of January 2018, employers are actively searching for innovative ways to attract and retain talent. Irwin Seating Company, a Grand Rapids-based manufacturing company, was no exception. They had a number of temporary employees without GEDs or diplomas who had applied for permanent employment, but were unable to get past the interview stage due to their literacy barriers.

This is where the Literacy Center’s Customized Workplace English (CWE) program comes in. CWE program staff worked with Irwin Seating Company’s Director of Human Resources, Mike Willerer, to create an English language class that addressed the temporary employees’ literacy needs as they related to Irwin Seating Company’s specific workplace. The English class was held at Irwin Seating Company twice a week for fifteen weeks. Learners received up to 60 hours of instruction from Maureen Birnie, a Literacy Center instructor with a Master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).Irwin Birnie

The classroom instruction included basic literacy, on the job math, interviewing skills, and graphic awareness. Irwin Seating Company also provided company-specific materials (prints, measurement tools, safety instructions) around which the instruction was based. Toward the end of the class session, Maureen focused her instruction on interviewing skills. She worked extensively with each learner so that they felt more confident in their English skills and ready to interview for permanent employment.

A few days after the final Irwin Seating Company class, Maureen called to report that all of the learners in the class were offered permanent employment at the company. The learners were so appreciative of the instruction and the opportunity, they purchased a bracelet for Maureen to thank her.

The Literacy Center’s Customized Workplace English program is pleased to partner with businesses like Irwin Seating Company to address the specific needs of the company and their workforce. Now more than ever, this investment pays off for companies and employees in a tight labor market.

To learn more about the Customized Workplace English program, contact Chad Patton at or (616) 459-5151. 

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