Depleted literacy levels major workforce issue: Execs

Communication problems, friction among negative impacts
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2012

More than three-quarters (76 per cent) of executives think literacy is a major workforce issue, according to a survey by ABC Life Literacy Canada. And one-quarter of the 69 executives surveyed said their employees have low literacy levels.

“It is two things: Canadian-born people who struggle with reading and writing — especially because writing has become such a big issue in the workforce, much more than it ever was before, people are noticing gaps in people’s writing. And new Canadians coming in are having difficulty with English or French,” said Margaret Eaton, president of ABC Life Literacy Canada in Toronto.

Literacy is an issue within the automotive repair industry, according to Edward Nasello, project manager for essential skills at the Ottawa-based Canadian Automotive Repair and Service Council (CARS). Employees are having difficulty dealing with rapid changes in the industry because of a lack of versatility around literacy.

“The better employers understand this, the better employees and apprentices understand this, the better the education community understands this, because we’re all feeding the same system, we’re all trying to deal with what amounts to be workplace literacy,” he said.

Essential skills are also an issue, as one-third of employees do not possess adequate essential skills, according to the survey.

This is also reflective within the automotive repair sector, with more than one-third (35 per cent) of the 300,000 people employed in the industry having some level of essential skills difficulty, according to a 2008 CARS survey of 1,000 people in the industry.

Increasing awareness

For the past few years, CARS has run a campaign to promote the improvement of essential skills competency within the automotive repair industry.

“We’re doing this campaign to raise the awareness of what the essential skills are, how they affect the industry, what does this mean to employers, how does it affect their comeback ratio, for instance — which is the ratio of customers who have to return because their repair was not adequately completed,” said Nasello.

Essential skills are identified as reading text, document use, numeracy, writing, oral communication, working with others, continuous learning, thinking skills and computer use. They should not be confused with technical skills — although they often are — which include the skills needed to complete a specific job, he said.

“We’ve been trying to resonate with employers that essential skills are the base skills. The technical skills are very important and are near and dear to the heart of employers, but sometimes people have difficulties with technical skills and they may find the problem isn’t the technical skills per se but it’s some other aspect of essential skills,” said Nasello.

Despite literacy and essential skills proving to be workplace concerns, executives are split on their role in training employees — 49 per cent think improving these skills is the responsibility of the employer and 51 per cent think it is not, found the survey.

“(Employers) are critical. Without the employer understanding these issues, without the encouragement, the nurturing of this, they’re the ones who ultimately pay the price,” said Nasello. “It’s an investment and it compounds, and it gets better and better.”

More than four in 10 (42 per cent) of employers do not have anything in place to improve the essential skills or literacy of employees, found the survey.

As a first step, employers should conduct a workplace assessment to determine employees’ level of essential skills, said Eaton.

Once employers find out exactly what’s going on and where the gaps are with employees, they can focus on specific training and channel resources, said Nasello.

Training for all

But employers should also consider putting in place introductory essential skills training that is mandatory for all employees, said Johanna Faulk, national program director at Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters in Mississauga, Ont., whose organization introduced the two-year Essential Skills Through Safety and Health project in 2010. It was designed to help employers integrate essential skills with occupational health and safety.

“(It’s about) using essential skills, embedding them in the work and making it an explicit training,” she said. “It’s levelling the playing field… It’s not like the dummy class — we’ve tried to create learning for everyone, everybody can benefit.”

Employers also need to take a critical look at the documents employees are trying to read, said Faulk. They should use images and the text should be written in plain English and focus on behaviours rather than just knowledge.

“We need to look at what’s out there before we worry about whether a person is having a problem with it,” said Faulk. “We tend to blame workers for not understanding stuff that’s not understandable.”

Negative implications

Low levels of literacy and essential skills have many negative impacts on the workplace, with communication problems coming out on top, according to 47 per cent of respondents to the ABC Life Literacy Canada survey.

“If you think about things like call centres, that used to be the way we’d interact with companies so you had to speak on the phone. But now, so many jobs are requiring writing — we’re emailing or texting and writing is a growing skill that people are having to find,” said Eaton.

Friction within the workplace (26 per cent) is also a negative impact of low levels of literacy and essential skills, found the survey.

This friction may stem from the fact people with essential skills difficulties don’t necessarily see it in themselves, so there is a built-in resistance when an employer suggests an individual complete an assessment or undergo training, said Nasello.

Loss of clients (24 per cent) and a decrease in profits (20 per cent) are other negative impacts, found the survey.

‘Tremendous benefits’ to providing training

Employers that provide literacy and essentials skills training will “reap tremendous benefits” including reduced absenteeism and increased retention, employee confidence and productivity, said Eaton.

“Anybody who is feeling more confident and is able then to go and take further training, become more sure of themselves — all of that adds to productivity and their happiness at work,” said Faulk. “(And) people feel loyal to the company when they feel the employer is looking out for them.”

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