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Norwegian food industries offer in-house language courses

| Text: Björn Lindahl

Knowing a country's language is important to get a job. But language is also getting more and more important in order to hold on to that job as new technology is introduced, employers demand written documentation and linguistic skills become an increasingly important part of the daily tasks at work.

"Workers who do not master the language become extra vulnerable when a business is cutting staff or introduce new technology. People who used to be able to do a good job without good language skills are exposed to greater challenges," says Heidi Enehaug from the Norwegian Work Research Institute, WRI.

She and WRI research colleague Steinar Widding have been hired by the KOM project which was jointly launched in 2008 by the employer organisation NHO Food and Drink and the trade union Norwegian Food and Allied Workers Union (NNN). 

KOM is an abbreviation for Kompetanse (Competence), Opplæring (Training) and  Mangfold (Diversity). The project's aim is to develop good tools and methods for language training in the workplace. There is also a plan to help businesses learn from each other by building networks within or across different trades. Increasing employees' skills should hopefully also improve internal mobility in the companies.  

"Getting a job doesn't automatically mean you learn better Norwegian or integrate into Norwegian society. In many companies with high numbers of immigrant workers different language groups will hire new workers who speak the same language," says  Heidi Enehaug.

So far six companies take part in the KOM project: Coca- Cola Drikker AS, brewery Ringnes a.s., bread supplier Bakers AS (Økern), ice cream manufacturer Hennig Olsen Is AS, confectionary provider Idun Industrier AS(Rakkestad) og chocolate manufacturer Nidar AS.

Roadmap for language training

After studying these six companies, Heidi Enehaug and Steinar Widding are now drawing up a roadmap for companies that wish to introduce language training in the workplace. They have also written a story about what might happen when a company over a relatively short space of time goes from being a workplace where all workers are ethnic Norwegian to a place where employees come from some 30 different countries. The fictional company finds it increasingly hard to find labour. 

"Many of the workers hired by the company came to this country as asylum seekers or refugees. They were therefore entitled to at least 300 hours with Norwegian training through the introduction programme, but as soon as the chance for a job and an income presented itself they left the course even if many of them spoke very poor Norwegian and were far off filling their quota of Norwegian lessons," the two researchers write.

The Vietnamese helped the company recruit more Vietnamese, the Iraqis got hold of more Iraqis and soon there were the beginnings of cliques and groups where everybody spoke the same language. In the canteen everybody sat in different language groups and finally entire departments had been taken over by one nationality. Many felt their Norwegian suffered as they didn't use the language at work or in their spare time. 

The work environment suffers

"The results from the KOM project show that even large companies with a progressive approach to developing internal diversity face great challenges. Several of the companies point out how difficult it is to carry out systematic work environment objectives when a large number of employees have a limited understanding of the Norwegian language," says Steinar Widding.

These are some of the warning signals:

- Safety officers simplify questions being raised about the work environment and limit the number of safety checks

- It becomes harder to map the work environment

- Line managers limit the number of employee meetings and don't feel sure all information is getting through

- Line managers start using hand signs and/or change their speak to a customised company 'pidgin Norwegian'

- Employees need help from colleagues in order to make themselves understood

When management decides that something has to be done to improve communication it is, according to the WRI researchers, important that the new project gets the room, resources and organisational grounding which is necessary for it to succeed. 

"Many companies make light of discussing what the problem really is. Maybe it is not only about Ali needing to learn better Norwegian, but rather how his work is organised, how working tasks are divided and a lack of training," says Heidi Enehaug.

Different expectations

These are questions which are best handled within the already established cooperation between employers and employees in a workplace. Expectations can be completely at odds with each other - the company want competent workers who understand and follow health and safety regulations. Employees want meaningful tasks, safety and acknowledgement from colleagues. 

"It is not obvious which needs should take priority when the training is organised as a joint effort from the employees, who will spend some of their spare time to do this," says Steinar Widding.

To make sure the course remains relevant it is important to both choose the right course organiser and to get it right when deciding how to tailor the lessons to the company's needs. Middle management needs to be brought onboard because it is they who need to organise production to fit around the language course, and they are also key when it comes to motivating employees to participate. 

While mapping employees' language skills it might also emerge that there is a large need for training even among those who has Norwegian as their mother tongue, because some of them suffer from reading and writing difficulties.

Heidi Enehaug

Enehaug portlet

 Senior researcher at Norway's Work Research Institute since 2009.

Research includes organisational development, learning organisation and work environments.


Steinar Widding

Widding portlet

Senior researcher at Norway's Work Research Institute 1992-1996, and from 1999. His interest is vulnerable groups on the Norwegian and European labour markets, diversity and learning in work-life.


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