Developing English Skills Allows Workers to Scale the Career Ladder

By Paige Farris

Historical Perspective Regarding Diversity

In 2001, W. B. Walsh et al. was critical of historical career development theories for their lack of applicability to diverse populations. The authors asserted that research on career issues for minority groups has been limited. However, cultural diversity must be addressed in today’s work force, and career development professionals are more often working with clients from culturally diverse groups. Walsh also suggested that barriers to career development may include lack of developmental feedback or mentors, discrimination in promotion/transfer, less access to training, perceived isolation, and many other issues that would tend to hold them back in their career paths.


Now, imagine that you speak absolutely no English. Being a person of color or of a diverse background is one issue that may bring difficulty to a person’s career development, but not speaking the language while trying to work and learn work skills in order to be promoted is entirely more complex. How can a non-English speaking worker have their career needs met and benefit from a holistic approach to career development?


Meeting the Needs of a Specific Hispanic Population’s Learning and Career Needs

The Backside Learning Center (BLC) is a nonprofit organization founded eight years ago as a program of the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Their mission is to serve equine workers by providing them with the opportunity for education, community and life skills to improve the quality of their lives, and ultimately the horses’.


Imagine someone asking you to check the bandages on the filly in Stall 26. Picture becoming frustrated when you don’t know what they are asking. Even when you figure it out from someone else in the barn who speaks a little English, you are not sure how to wrap the horse’s legs. You’ve never worked with horses before. This is your first job working with horses, and your first job in the United States. While some job training is provided, the fast-paced work environment requires that you learn quickly, which is often made easier by acquiring English skills.


By learning English, an equine worker can improve his/her position within the workplace. A hot-walker, someone who walks the horses around the barn to warm them up before a workout or cool them down afterwards, can move up to being a groom, someone who brushes, feeds, wraps bandages, bathes, and generally cares for the horses. Some grooms are able to become barn foremen, giving them leadership and supervision responsibilities in the barn. Sometimes, barn foremen are even promoted to assistant trainer. In order to climb this career ladder, however, one needs to acquire and improve English abilities.


The Learning Center assists workers with this in these ways:

  • Providing English classes to students at all levels of learning

  • Pairing students with tutors who can help them learn the parts of the horse, names for tack and equipment, and phrases that they might use or hear in the stables

  • General Education Diploma (GED) Tutoring


Through hard work and dedication, several of the Learning Center’s students have been promoted from hot-walker to groom and even groom to barn foreman. Some have passed their GED exams and have been able to find jobs outside of the race track. Here are a few other educational opportunities available at the BLC that aid workers in climbing the career ladder:

  • Computer Classes and Services: The Backside Learning Center provides a computer lab with Internet access and the option of headphone rental.  The BLC also offers a weekly technology class, where individuals can learn more about anything technological that they are interested in (from how to send an e-mail to how to add a profile picture to a Facebook account).  The class adjusts to each student’s level, since some need to start with the basics of how to use a computer while others are ready for more advanced skills.


  • GED Tutoring: When a student expresses interest in studying for the GED examination, the Backside Learning Center will pair that student with a tutor.  The tutor will work with the student one-on-one in order to help hold him/her accountable, to explain concepts that the student finds difficult to grasp, and to help the student work through sample questions.


  • Citizenship Classes: The Backside Learning Center offers a citizenship class once a week for students who are studying to take the Naturalization Exam.  The teacher helps the students to learn the answers to possible questions, how to pronounce the English words, and how to write the questions and answers.


  • Volunteer Income Tax Assistance: The Backside Learning Center serves as a VITA site for two days out of the year.  The VITA program allows individuals who make less than $51,000 a year to have their taxes done for free.


  • Bilingual Legal Clinics: Once a year, the Backside Learning Center works with the Louisville Bar Association in order to offer a free legal clinic.  Lawyers and interpreters are available to answer the students’ legal questions, especially related to family law and immigration.


  • Field Trips: Once a month during the Backside Learning Center’s regular season, the BLC offers field trips to the students.  These fieldtrips could be anything from attending WorldFest downtown to ice skating to visiting a haunted house.  The field trips offer a way for students to leave the track and experience the larger Louisville community to network, learn, and use their English-speaking skills.  Whenever it is possible, the BLC staff and students travel on the city bus system in order to familiarize students with that mode of transportation, since many of them do not own vehicles.


The Learning Center is proud to serve this population and help them realize their full potential through this holistic approach to career development. As a result, the equine workers feel more secure in their jobs knowing that they are able to communicate effectively and more confident in their career prospects knowing that they have opportunities.



Walsh, W. B., Bingham, R. P., Brown, M. T., & Ward, C. M. (2001). Career Counseling for African Americans. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.



Paige Farris

Paige Farrisis the Administrative Assistant at the Backside Learning Center where she plans programming for students, coordinates volunteer projects, assists with grant writing and fundraising endeavors, and occasionally teaches English. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish with a minor in International Relations from Centre College (Danville, KY) and has worked for the Learning Center since her graduation in May 2012. The previous summer, she gained experience for her current position by serving as an intern in the Learning Center. She can be reached at pfarris@backsidelearningcenter.org



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