Math, reading skills holding employees back

Employers can’t assume employees with high school diplomas are literate

At a time when the economy is becoming more knowledge intensive and basic reading and math skills more valuable, evidence suggests workplace literacy is a significant problem few employers are doing anything about.

Employers tend not to invest in the development of literacy skills at work because they don’t see it as an issue, said Michael Bloom, director of education and learning at the Conference Board of Canada.

“Most employers are unaware of the extent of this issue even though the International Adult Literacy Survey — sponsored by the National Literacy Secretariat and Human Resources Development Canada — finds that 42 per cent of Canadian workers have literacy skills below the level they need to succeed and perform well in most jobs,” Bloom said.

That statistic puts Canada in the middle of the pack, compared to other developed countries. Canada is a bit better than the U.S. when it comes to literacy but significantly worse than high-performing countries like Sweden.

Many students across Canada are failing in the reading, writing and math departments. Nova Scotia introduced standardized literacy tests but failing these tests will not prevent students from graduating. Instead, some will receive an “adjusted diploma” which will warn employers about the individual’s weaknesses. Ontario is considering a similar diploma for its students. About 25 per cent failed the province’s standardized tests this year.

Bloom is the co-author of the Conference Board’s study, The economic benefits of improving literacy skills in the workplace, which outlines the benefits of addressing workplace literacy and the consequences if organizations don’t.

The growing complexity of jobs in Canadian workplaces heightens the demands being placed on workers, the report stated. The literacy skills that enabled workers to do their jobs effectively in the past are no longer sufficient. Workers need to continuously acquire new skills and qualifications to succeed in modern workplaces.

Some organizations are catching on to the ABCs of workplace literacy and implementing programs with great success. In an effort to raise the profile of the problem, the Conference Board established Awards for Excellence in Workplace Literacy, recognizing those organizations that are making an effort to close the literacy gap.

“The awards act as a credential, a demonstration to others about the genuine achievements made by (these employers),” said Bloom. “We have found a wide variety of very successful programs. Success being defined by the effectiveness of changing the literacy of employees and improving the performance of the organization as a result.”

National Silicates, a Toronto-based industrial chemical producer with 93 employees, has seen a definite improvement in performance with the introduction of the Chemical Process Operators (CPO) program, says Lynda Ryder, director of employee relations. The company won the Conference Board’s 2002 small business award.

In 1995, National Silicates recognized there was a need to upgrade the skills of its employees to compete with the pace of the industry. The company discovered four other companies that shared similar training needs. The group embarked on a joint effort to create a program that would develop the required skills needed in the industrial chemical sector. Working through the Etobicoke Liquid Process Adjustment Committee — a group of industry experts, federal and provincial governments, a local board of education, a community college, management and labour representatives and a hired chairperson — a 6,000-hour, in-house, training program with more than 90 interactive CD-ROM modules and hands-on learning was developed. The province of Ontario recognizes the CPO program as an approved apprenticeship for liquid chemical process operators.

So far, of the 19 workers at National Silicates’ Toronto site, three have completed the program, five are nearing completion and two more have signed up for the program. Last month, the company held a small graduation ceremony for the several students who completed the curriculum.

Once employees graduate, they are considered multi-skilled and can function in all areas of the plant operations. In addition, their wages increase by $1.25 per hour, they have transferable skills within the process operator field and the broader chemical industry and their basic numeracy, literacy, operational, health and safety and computer skills improve.

This is a strategy small businesses in a small sector can consider when one company doesn’t have enough people or can’t resource the training program on a large scale but a group of companies could, said Bloom. But too many times employers are afraid that if they train their workers, they will leave the company to pursue a better opportunity.

Ryder said she’s not worried about losing staff. The company has had a zero turnover rate. She said the training encourages staff to stay. The added incentive of getting paid overtime for the hours spent in training is also a bonus.

“My mother always said if you love something enough, set it free, that’s how I feel. You can train them (workers) but you have to do more than just training to keep your employees. You have to keep them motivated, show them respect and we have lots of recognition, celebrations and rewards,” she said. “I have a real belief that if you don’t share, you don’t get anything back. So sharing the knowledge that you have, that just makes it better all around,” said Ryder.

Royal Star Foods in Tignish, Prince Edward Island also knows the benefits of sharing knowledge. The seafood processing plant set up a workplace education program for employees, fishers and their family members.

“There was a husband and wife team in their late 50s and they were really excited about taking our computer literacy course,” said Cheryl DesRoches, HR assistant at Royal Star Foods. “They never used a computer before. It’s nice to see.”

Royal Star won the 2002 medium-sized business award by the Conference Board. The program was developed in 1999 after the company built a new processing plant that was highly computerized. The new processing equipment (ranging from scales for product on the dock to a computerized time clock), safety requirements and more sophisticated quality control procedures pushed Royal Star to focus on the literacy skills of its workers, said DesRoches.

Since the program’s inception, about 17 courses have been offered including computer training, high school equivalency diplomas, customized communications and management productivity. There is a room dedicated to the skills training of fishers called “the fisherman’s café,” with a 10-unit computer lab.

Computer skills for fishers don’t have to be directly work-related, if someone wants to learn how to make a spreadsheet they can learn, DesRoches said.

“It’s mostly seasonal work here and in the winter time, employees can come in and take courses when they’re not working,” she said.

In total, 20 employees have received their high shcool equivalency certificate, and more than 70 workers participated in Royal Star’s literacy program last year. DesRoches said she’s seen many improvements like lower error rates, increased safety and greater productivity.

“It boosts morale a lot. Some people have been in line work for so long, they don’t realize that they can do these things,” she said. “We felt like we accomplished something when we received the award and it can help other businesses see how important literacy is in the workplace. People don’t realize how important education is.”

That realization is quite clear for employees at Boeing Canada Technology in Winnipeg.

“Most companies don’t think their employees are not literate, it’s not even on their radar screen” said Sue Turner, HR manager for training and development at Boeing Canada. “When an employee walks in that front door there’s an assumption that they’re educated.”

However in the workplace, there are increasing demands for reading, writing, math and communication skills and the benchmark is always changing, she said. Boeing is the recipient of the 2002 large business award for its Essential Skills literacy initiative, a program that is primarily custom-made training for employees on company time.

“We found customized programs much more successful, it’s more effective learning that is specific and contextualized. It’s what the individual needs as opposed to a generic program.”

With one of the largest number of deaf employees in the private sector in Canada — the company employs 24 deaf people — Boeing had a unique challenge of meeting the needs of these workers.

Boeing developed the “Math for Deaf Learners” curriculum and video series. Two of Boeing’s deaf employees participated as actors in the video, which is entirely in sign language. There are no voiceovers or closed captioning.

But the biggest challenge for most employees at Boeing (and one of the main reasons for the literacy program) is being able to read and comprehend complex documents. Turner explains that when employees build a part, it must be built according to the work order and processes. There are Boeing specifications and employees have to be able to read and understand the documents to know which processes to follow and which materials to use, it’s very rigorous, but it’s how the company builds parts to a certain standard.

“Because the documents were so technical, we needed to give staff the skills to navigate through those documents and comprehend what they’re reading.”

These are fundamental skills that people need to do their job, Turner said.

In its report, the Conference Board of Canada urges employers to look at the potential impact of literacy on business success.

“No matter how much capital investment occurs, without adequate training and education, employers and their employees, will remain unable to harvest the full potential of that investment,” the report stated. “More highly skilled, literate people are key to increasing productivity.”

The Conference Board is currently accepting applications for the 2003 workplace literacy awards. For more information visit their Web site:

Latest stories