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Better Communication By Design
Photos and Story by James Hill
by James HillIt’s ink screening with an attitude.A friendliness permeates from the top to its corps of employees at Latitudes, a northwest Portland ink-screen and embroidery business. Latitudes is a flourishing young company that needed help bringing its largely Hispanic workforce up to speed with the English language in order for them to communicate with their coworkers and do their job more efficiently.Enter Portland Community College Customized and Workplace Training (CWT), which provided the rapid response to help meet the growing company’s needs. After a year, the English as a second language (ESL) training has paid off. Just ask Edgar Burdos, a three-year embroidery operator for Latitudes, who says the training through PCC has been invaluable in the workplace."It is an interesting class because I’ve learned more vocabulary about the job that I’m doing,"said Burdos, who was in the program’s advanced English class. "I used to take classes at PCC at different levels so I knew what to expect. Now, I can talk to people about what I’m doing and understand what they’re saying. This has given me an opportunity to learn more and become a better employee."Latitudes specializes in contract printing for corporations, schools and entertainment touring companies. Its warehouse is full of high-tech design, printing and embroidery equipment. The company estimates it produces 10,000 shirts a day, taking about 10 minutes to ink screen a shirt. Once the shirts are put through a dryer at 300-plus degrees, they are folded, tagged and wrapped.Inside Latitudes, you get a sense of camaraderie, from their dedicated legion of employees to the sales and administrative staff in the front office to even their pack of dogs, which all happily lounge or cruise the bustling corridors to greet employees and visitors.The company is owned by Larie and Dick Thomas, who asked that PCC not only devise tailored English classes for the workers but Spanish for themselves in a show of good faith. "Taking Spanish was a real morale booster, real supportive,"said Bonnie Starkey, manager of workforce training and development at PCC, who was the manager on the project for Latitudes.During the 14 years they’ve been in business, Latitudes started out in a small building in southeast Portland to a large warehouse near Highway 30 by the Pearl District. Nearly half of the 37 employees at Latitudes are Hispanic and many of them desired to learn English.In September 2001, the college secured $20,000 in grant money through the Oregon Community College and Workforce Development program, which Latitudes matched. The one-year grant was customized to the screen-print industry and consisted of three groups based on their level of proficiency."PCC has a track record for on-site customized training so we were comfortable in their approach. We commend the job of the three instructors – they were exceptional,"Dick Thomas said. "We feel we were really fortunate to have gone with PCC. It’s something to talk about for some time."The PCC partnership with Latitudes doesn’t stop after this year. The company wants to create a model designed by CWT through its work with ESCO Corporation. The model, which was developed with the idea of helping other companies like Latitudes, involves gathering frontline workers for several days to examine the company’s manufacturing processes and come up with ideas to improve production. In the end, the materials created for ESCO will be adapted and made accessible for non-native speakers at Latitudes.Co-owner Larie Thomas said, "The language classes have improved efficiency in our manufacturing."Starkey said the impact of the classes was evident early on."We put in motion a system that can be replicated,"Starkey said. "The confidence level has increased. The focus on improving their English fits into their long-term outlook for their job security. The Thomas’s are keen business people but needed help. For so many Oregon businesses, lack of English skills of their workers is a crisis."