Up to 40% of your workforce could be functionally illiterate
Not only are employers best positioned to address the low levels of literacy and numeracy skills in New Zealand's general workforce – the primary sector has more than its fair share – they also stand to reap tremendous benefits when they do.
The latest OECD research on adult literacy in New Zealand reports that more than 40 per cent of the local workforce has a literacy and numeracy problem that prevents them from doing their jobs properly.
Primary ITO's National Manager - Literacy and Numeracy, Mike Styles, says that while primary sector employers have the most to gain from improved literacy levels, they haven't been left to go it alone.
"Most employers aren't aware that the Government will fund workplace literacy programmes. They have also made some tools available, such as the adult literacy and numeracy assessment tool, which measures the competencies of adults against a set of standards."
At least 50 percent or more of New Zealanders may also have challenges around numeracy which prevents them from doing their jobs properly.
This means that not only will they struggle to do their job, they are unlikely to get promoted, will have difficulty adapting to new technology and in many instances are unable to properly participate in meetings and the ongoing development in their jobs.
What can companies do to improve workplace literacy?
Step number one is to measure the problem before it can be addressed, because most people will have great difficulty talking about their inability to read or do basic arithmetic.
"In our experience, most trainees will take the test, which gives us a baseline to work with. It is important, because illiteracy has a very direct link to people's ongoing – either connection to or alienation from – further development and training.
"People leave school without an NCEA level because they have literacy and numeracy problems. Ask most school kids and you will find that the most unpopular subjects are English and maths," says Mike, a former secondary school teacher himself. "The result is that this destines them to a pathway of disconnection from further training."
They next step for an employer is to apply for literacy and numeracy funding to pay for a training programme or a workplace tutor to address the issue.
Problems associated with addressing workplace literacy
Literacy and numeracy training is expensive because workers have to be compensated for after-hours training, or companies have to pull people off the production line to go to tutoring.
"As a former workplace literacy and numeracy tutor, I know that employers have to sacrifice. For one, they have to commit to up to 40 hours of training per worker to qualify for funding – but I've seen those 40 hours turn people's lives around," he says.
Primary ITO’s Mentoring Programme
Primary ITO's literacy and numeracy training programme is not Government funded, but the organisation is set-up to assist those people with low literacy and numeracy skills.
Mike says the mentoring programme using volunteers from the community as mentors to work with very small groups or one-on-one with trainees has had tremendous success.
"The best way you can support someone in this situation is by personal one-on-one mentoring, because the biggest problem is often a lack of motivation, personal organisation or confidence, and mentors are very effective in that area."
Seven benefits to the employer
Improved literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace offer employers a solid return on investment in terms of:
1. Fewer workplace mistakes translates into reduced wastage.
2. Better health and safety outcomes. Workers who can’t read health and safety documents are not by definition safe. Most health and safety documents are written for adults, but a high percentage of the workforce do not have the reading skills of an adult.
3. Greater productivity through improved comprehension and motivation.
4. Improved workplace agility because staff adapt to new technology easily and quickly.
5 Staff members develop the ability to undergo ongoing training to grow their careers and skills; to be able to assume more senior roles in the organisation
6. Staff are less transient and more likely to stay with the company long term.
7. A happier workforce through personal life balance – people who have undergone literacy training are more likely to read to their children, which offers social cohesion benefits.
"I think employers of all shapes and sizes don't understand the full extent of the problem and when they do discover an issue, they don't know what to do about it. As a result, they end up finding workarounds or they simply avoid confronting it.
"But there is funding available and there is support through Primary ITO and other providers. Employers who deal with the issue will find they have a far happier, more rounded workplace," says Mike.