Employment Today, Issue 105
Poor literacy is a very real problem in our workplaces but many businesses have yet to acknowledge its impact on effective work practices. Lyndsey Swan explores the issue and finds out why we should invest in workplace training programmes.
Imagine finding out that some of the staff on your production
team don’t understand the difference between a kilogram and
a gram, yet they’re required to weigh out the raw material as
part of their job. Imagine discovering staff are doing everything they
can to avoid attending the new training programme you’re so proud of—because they can’t read the resource material. Or perhaps your teams simply aren’t working efficiently because supervisors aren’t giving clear instructions, staff don’t understand them, and they lack the confidence to ask for clarification.
And let’s not think such problems are confined to the production line. Misplaced commas, spelling errors and poorly structured sentences dot the written communications of many office workers making for confusion and lack of clarity. Think for a minute about the message this sends out about your organisation.
Poor literacy is a very real problem in our workplaces. In 1996, over 4000 New Zealand adults took part in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) which was conducted in 22 countries. Those surveyed were measured on three scales—prose, document and quantitative literacy—and scores were grouped into five literacy levels. The results were a wake-up call—40 percent of employed New Zealanders and 75 percent of the unemployed were found to be at level one or level two, indicating either ‘very poor’ or ‘weak’ levels of skill. Level three is considered the minimum level of literacy competence for everyday life and work.
It seems even students in our tertiary institutions are having problems. A Canterbury University education department submission to a select committee inquiry into teacher education last year claimed many first-year students struggle to write an adequate
sentence or structure their ideas. And Heather Ker, a former Waikato Institute of Technology tutor, reports watching literacy levels decline over the years to the extent that many of the students in her classes didn’t know the difference between upper case and lower case.
Ker is on a mission to help people improve their language skills.
She’s devised an interactive CD programme for businesses because she feels “desperate that language is going down the gurgler”. She worries about the impact this has on issues like workplace safety and the credibility of both businesses and individuals. “Poor language skills make us look as though we are uneducated or sloppy
and careless and those are not good messages,” she says.
So should we be worried? Workplace literacy is fundamental to good workplaces, says Phil O’Reilly, chief executive of Business New Zealand. “It’s not only that workers can be more productive if they’re literate and numerate, it’s also simply that they can read
warning signs and move about the site in a safe and healthy way.
The fact that we have a problem with it in New Zealand is obviously a real concern to business.”
Although O’Reilly believes New Zealand’s average literacy looks reasonable beside other OECD countries, he says our problem is the high number of people at the lower end of the scale. “Our best are very, very good, but we’ve got a long below-average tail. The problem with that tail is that most of the people are in work right now, and will be in work for 10 or 15 years. What that means is that, whether we like it or not, it becomes a business issue.
“Business has been placed in a position where we’ve got to go back and do the job that really the schools and the communities should have done,” he says. “It’s turning out to be a business issue and business has to look it squarely in the face and do something about it.”
Literacy and numeracy skills are becoming increasingly important in today’s workplace, according to O’Reilly. “Even low skilled workers will be having to work computers and get engaged in teamwork and more self-managed activity, so inevitably you’re going to need those skill sets,” he says. “This is not just a productivity driver for business, this is much more fundamental and basic than that—it’s about being able to run the enterprise.”
On the level
Modern work and life demands require people to operate at around level three [on the five-point IALS scale], says Katherine Percy, chief executive of Workbase, the New Zealand Centre for Workforce Literacy Development. “At levels one and two you wouldn’t be able to get much information, even basic information, out of unfamiliar
documents,” she says. “Your comprehension would be quite low.
The kinds of documents you meet in the workplace, like standard operating procedures, health and safety manuals, leave forms, and also everyday forms like power bills, require a level of literacy above level two.”
The best performing countries in the IAL survey were the four Nordic countries - Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. New Zealand was part of a group of mainly English-speaking countries in the middle of the distribution.
“When the results came out, it gave everyone in New Zealand a lot of pause because we believed we were a very literate country,” says Percy. “It woke up people’s view. In the past the view was you either weren’t literate or you were; you either couldn’t read or you could and you were fine. What this threw up is that in a modern economy you need to think about levels. People in work might need, depending on their jobs, remarkably different levels of prose and document literacy and numeracy.”
Adults possess what Percy describes as a ‘spiky’ profile. Take, for example, the guy who likes motor mechanics, she says. “Often he can read a very complex manual that someone on a level five literacy couldn’t easily understand. You could give him an unfamiliar form that he was uninterested in and he would struggle to fill in seemingly basic information. You cannot presume. The survey blew open the idea that it was all or nothing.”
She believes poor literacy has been a relatively invisible problem - and one that employers find incredibly difficult to spot. A Workbase survey of employers reported a number of common issues - for example, wastage and errors; problems following instructions or procedures; forms and reports filled out inaccurately, customer complaints, and more. But, says Percy, although they all report these problems, many employers don’t recognise that they are associated with literacy levels.
Barbara Wilkinson, programme manager for Workbase, says it’s often problems with form filling that first alert employers to literacy issues with their staff. “They’re not getting information filled out properly, particularly their production log which is their way of collecting data about their performance,” she says.
“Often companies come to us and they say, ‘We know that these guys really understand the process well and they probably know it better than we do as managers, but we can’t get information, we can’t get feedback from them, we can’t get their ideas because they’re not prepared to speak up at meetings or they’re not
confident speaking.’ And obviously they’re not writing it down either so they’re not capturing a lot of that intellectual knowledge about their processes.”
Literacy forms the backbone to productivity, says Wilkinson. If companies can’t reliably capture a lot of their production data, they’re not able to record how well they’re doing and therefore they can’t compare their performance one year to the next.
Percy points out that there’s been no attempt to measure the cost of low workforce literacy in New Zealand or Australia. But a few years ago in Britain, she says, economists did calculate the cost. “It came to billions and that has prompted the enormous investment they’re making in basic skills development. In terms of training,
there’s nothing comparable here - Britain has incredible targets for people to gain basic skills in literacy and numeracy.”
She notes that Australia, too, is a little ahead of New Zealand. She attributes this to the high number of non-English speaking migrants there which has led to addressing immigrant language issues earlier than we have in New Zealand, with deliberate policies to support language acquisition.
Wilkinson is quick to add that New Zealand has made big gains in the area of targeting programmes towards improving workforce literacy. “What we’re doing is functional literacy and we’re doing it in the narrower context of the workplace,” she says. “Our tutors look at the particular tasks people need to do—the forms that they need to fill in, the production logs they’ve got to fill that out, the measurements and calculations they must do.
“It’s very specific to the needs of the workplace. We’re not going along and talking about how you’re going with filling in forms for the bank or how you get a driver’s licence or those general life things. We’re talking about the specific workplace tasks.”
Contextualised learning is three times more effective than generalised, says Percy. “Adults learn for a purpose. None of us do it to improve our grammar or become more literate—people want to be able to do something. Whether it’s being able to do some part of their job or wanting to read to their kids, literacy is for a purpose.”
She says making the link to a purpose makes learning meaningful.
People learn more quickly and, because it’s applied immediately in their job, it’s reinforced and so is a far more efficient way of learning.
What’s more, she adds, it’s much easier for workplace acquired literacy to transfer to community roles than the other way around.
“There’s quite a bit of technical language that’s specific to jobs that you don’t get in a generic learning situation. It’s much easier to transfer learning at work back into home life than the other way.”
Phil O’Reilly would agree. “The good news from New Zealand’s perspective is research indicates that language and numeracy skills learned in the workplace tend to stick because they’re work related,” he says. “The English that you learn about that piece of machinery or a particular process, you use that day and the next day and the next—it tends to stick with you. Workplace programmes do tend to work but many businesses will be saying: Why is this my problem?”
Why indeed? In O’Reilly’s words, this is a ‘gotta’ for business.
“You gotta do something about this because if you are facing a workforce that has low literacy and numeracy skills then really the health of your enterprise is going to be affected. Whether or not business wants to do something about this, business will have to do something about this over the next 10 or 15 years,” he says.
Of course, many companies already are involved in literacy programmes for their staff, either in cooperation with governmentsupported agencies or through their own in-house programmes. Organisations that have taken part in Workbase’s 48-week one-on-one programmes report major transformations in their workplaces. Rotaform Plastics, for example, saw sales rise by 34 percent, profits by 31 percent, and reject rates fall by 55 percent in one year. But not only are companies seeing increased profits, more accurate recording and fewer errors, says Barbara Wilkinson, they
are also reporting improvements in staff morale and confidence and less absenteeism.
“People have suddenly had a renewed interest in their jobs and they’re starting to take more responsibility and are more engaged and buying into what the company is trying to achieve,” she says.
Despite the good news stories, not everyone is convinced. A Workbase study into employer investment in workplace literacy programmes released earlier this year indicated many employers are either unaware of or resistant to the help available.
While the companies surveyed articulated the same kind of performance problems—such as errors in read work and customer complaints - almost 80 percent were unaware of workplace literacy programmes and more than 30 percent of those said they would not consider workplace training for their employees anyway.
There was a group who were almost philosophically opposed, says Katherine Percy. “Even if they found out it was an issue, they would not think it was their problem to fix.”
The largest single group (46 percent) of survey respondents were unaware of the link between workplace concerns and literacy but were open to addressing the issue, while a further 22 percent had identified that the issues they were experiencing had a literacy or a skill component. Just 12 percent were committed to doing something
There is a need to target employers with the persuasive evidence of the benefits of literacy training, warns Percy. “Employers who have identified literacy issues and invested in workplace literacy programmes have been clearly able to show improved performance.”
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2005 employment today 27
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