It wasn’t as if someone mistakenly fed drywall to a client’s cat, but Ethan Landis, principal of Landis Construction, in Washington, D.C., could see that communication was breaking down between the field staff — many of whom are not native English speakers — and the production/design staff and between the field staff and clients. Landis decided to start an in-house English class for field workers.

Specifically, says production head Mary Mikkelsen, who taught and managed the program with her assistant, Kelly Nguyen, there were problems with daily job updates. “Field personnel could use their iPhone to send photos or videos but [that] needed to be supported with words. We want to groom the field guys to become project managers or leads — which requires better skills — and make them more confident in working with clients.”

Back to Basics

Mikkelsen and Nguyen used Tim Faller’s Lead Carpenter Handbook  to structure the course, which is divided into six units: basic English (sentence structure, grammar, reading, listening); vocabulary-building; writing; using technology; dialogue; and report writing.

Using Microsoft PowerPoint, videos, worksheets, role play, and an ESL (English as a Second Language) text, the pair taught the twice-weekly classes over a three-month period. They emphasized descriptive writing to help field workers get their point across. Attendance wasn’t mandatory, but Nguyen says, “workers were willing to come to better their English.” And students were graded.

The clarity of email and text messages has progressively improved, and employees are more comfortable with the various forms of technology. Now, Nguyen says, there’s less disconnect when information passes from one person to another. The company will also offer refresher courses.

Stacey Freed, senior editor, REMODELING.

Don’t want to start from scratch? Check out the National Association of Home Builders’ self-paced learning system, Sed de Saber, an interactive book on construction English available at