Washington Researchers Examine ESL Preparation in Hospitality

Faced with labor shortages in many entry-level jobs, the hospitality industry often provides refugees and immigrants with their first employment opportunity in the United States. In fact, immigrants are 1.4 times as likely as U.S.-born workers to be employed in the leisure and hospitality sector, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Vocational preparation in these sectors, however, requires a minimum level of English speaking and listening skills in order for immigrants to apply and be hired. While many hotel and restaurant managers work with new employees to ensure they have the basic language skills required of their position, oftentimes refugees and immigrants who are interested in hospitality careers will end up enrolling in basic level English courses to meet these minimum expectations. Still, it can be challenging for this group of workers to fully integrate into the workplace and receive the same level of opportunity to advance in their organization.

Executives within the Jobs for the Future organization and the National Association of Manufacturers Center for Workforce Success have looked at this issue from the manufacturing industry’s perspective. They discovered that when employers make greater efforts to provide limited English-speaking workers with some language training, it is because they understand that productivity—and thus the bottom line— increases when frontline employees are adequately trained.


Within the context of this issue as it relates to hospitality, a team of researchers from Washington State University’s Carson College of Business are currently working to identify the gaps that exist between what immigrant workers know prior to entering the hospitality sector and what they need to know to be successful in their new positions.

Over the next several months, the study will examine vocational preparation (classroom instruction) of English Language Learners (ELL) and methods employed by hospitality managers who teach ELL workers on-the-job. The full breadth of the research will look at each individual’s understanding of language used in pre-employment processes (e.g. job applications, interviews, orientations, benefits explanations, employee rights and healthcare), on-the-job training (e.g. safety and sanitation, time cards, workplace culture, customer service, conflict management) and other general workplace vocabulary.

To achieve this, the team will conduct focus groups with English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors, department managers, general managers, and ELL employees from a targeted group of select- and limited-service hotels in the Northwest. The end goal is to discover the total amount of English language knowledge necessary as ELL employees prepare for work, along with the language skills necessary to perform duties within the industry. The focus groups will be used to identify gaps between what exists and what is still needed.

Through these conversations with participants, the team will document examples of ELL employees who have been successful in the industry, as well as challenges encountered by employees and managers. Ultimately, the results of this study will help inform ESL instructors interested in creating vocational preparation curriculum for the hospitality industry—something that has not closely examined in this field before. Operators will benefit from closer alignment with their human resources departments, ESL instructors will be more confident in their role as teachers, and ELL employees will be better prepared for entry-level positions and advancement within their organization.

To be successful, the team must start by recognizing and understanding the needs of our migrant workforce. As this population continues to grow in the U.S. and the need for vocational preparation becomes even more important, future research will be able to replicate this study in other segments of the hospitality industry.

If you are interested in participating in this study, or have questions for the researchers about the research, please contact Mark Beattie at mabeattie@wsu.edu.

About the Researchers:

Dr. Mark Beattie is a program coordinator and clinical assistant professor at Washington State University’s School of Hospitality Business Management, North Puget Sound, in Everett, Washington. He teaches a full range of hospitality coursework, drawing from more than 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry, including 20 years in management positions.

Ms. Chan Beattie received her master of teaching English as a second language from Gonzaga University. Currently, she serves as program specialist for the Volunteer Literacy Program in the Transitional Studies Division at Everett Community College. Ms. Beattie has over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry.

Dr. Jenni Sandstrom is a clinical assistant professor at Washington State University’s School of Hospitality Business Management in Pullman, Washington. She teaches hospitality leadership and lodging courses, drawing from more than 25 years of leadership experience in lodging.