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Basic Skills Training 101

Unless you’re one of those rare human resources virtuosos who has a natural talent for teaching, it won’t be easy designing and implementing a workplace literacy program—especially one that will help employees improve the skills needed to retain their jobs, advance their careers and increase company productivity.

A successful workplace literacy program requires a lot more than just stuffing paycheck envelopes with Project Read® brochures. Most HR managers, all too aware of their limited expertise in this area, choose alliances with local educational institutions, community colleges or even private firms skilled in developing, customizing and delivering basic workplace skills programs. It’s just easier than trying to build something from scratch.

Be sensitive in your approach to skills assessment.
Developing a more highly skilled workforce first requires a job analysis and skills assessment to help you identify and close the gaps in reading, math, communication skills and other areas. The City of Phoenix, for example, conducted a survey over a decade ago that revealed many employees lacked the basic skills to be considered “promotable.” As a result, the Public Works and Personnel Departments partnered with local community colleges and Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County to develop a curriculum for city employees. “It’s just more feasible to work with outside consultants who already have the assessment and training tools,” says June Liggins, Phoenix personnel curriculum and training coordinator.

You should encourage employees to transfer their new skills to the workforce.

However, assessing employees can often lead to stress. Sometimes people think they’re at a higher reading or math level than they really are. Most managers agree the curriculum should be tied as closely as possible to workers’ skills and what workers actually do.

You should also encourage employees to transfer their newly acquired skills back to the workforce to improve, say, cycle times or marketing, or to increase employee bonuses. Above all else, consider that maybe you’re better off relying on professional instructors than the do-it-yourself approach.

Employee reluctance must be overcome.
Perhaps the toughest hurdle to overcome is getting people to volunteer for a literacy program. “Employees are just too self-conscious,” says Jack Fenimore, president of the Newburgh, Indiana-based Literacy Now, a nonprofit distributor of educational materials. “They don’t want to admit they can’t read, particularly to their employers.”

Years ago at Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola—when company officials first introduced a workplace literacy program—employees were given the opportunity to volunteer if they felt they needed to improve their reading, writing and math skills. Less than half stepped forward. “But once employees went back into the workforce and started sharing their experiences, the participation rate jumped another 20 to 30 percent,” says Jim Frasier, manager of learning research and evaluation for Motorola University.

Workplace literacy training must meet not only your company’s needs, but also the needs of your employees — otherwise, they may not participate.

Companies that really want to encourage employees to get involved in their own education need to convey straight from the CEO’s office that it’s a business issue that’s driving the need for skills improvements. Once that’s established, managers should consider a range of programs that are both innovative and expansive, not only for your existing workforce, but for alternative labor pools, as well.

There are ways to keep the training costs low.
Although the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute’s Center for Workforce Success recommends employers invest at least 3 percent of total payroll to educate and train employees, workplace literacy programs don’t have to be expensive. For many small and mid-size companies, there’s little expense beyond the time involved in planning the program and releasing employees from work to participate in classes. For example, the cost of the Phoenix Literacy Program has averaged about $2.25 per employee-contact hour, according to city officials.

There are many ways to keep the costs of your basic skills programs low, according to Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance of Business (NAB). Some states offer tax credits, some unions share expenses, and federal and many state governments offer grants.

It’s not even necessary to conduct classes only at corporate headquarters. Collaboration is actually a good thing for effective training and education, and, in truth, no single company, educational institution or government agency can tackle the challenge alone. “Companies need to sit down with educational institutions and others, and decide what specific skills are needed in the workforce,” says Helene F. Uhlfelder, Ph.D., director with the Atlanta office of AnswerThink Consulting Group, a management consulting firm.

HR managers need to consider these key points.
Workplace literacy training must meet not only your company needs, but also the needs of your employees—otherwise, they may not participate. According to NAB, there are a number of key points you should consider when developing a workplace literacy training program.

  • Involve management, supervisors, employees and union in the development stage. Successful programs should be supported by every department in your company.
  • Align the program with company objectives, practices and job requirements.
  • Whenever possible, workplace literacy skills training should be linked with other training required in the workplace.
  • Be flexible about when and where classes are held, and provide incentives for participating employees.
  • Allow for self-paced learning. Employees will come to the training with widely divergent skills and learning abilities.
  • Use a variety of instructional methods and media, from self-paced computer programs and workbooks to one-on-one instruction.
  • Provide ongoing feedback to help employees gauge their own progress.
  • Ensure employee confidentiality. Otherwise, they may not participate.

To get training off the ground, you need support.
Diane Bronson Young is CEO and human resources director of Ridgeville, Ontario-based J.F. Young International Inc., an educational training and consulting firm. She has more than 15 years of experience in literacy training, and works primarily with companies interested in setting up educational upgrading programs for their employees.

“The two most important elements when establishing a company literacy program are support from management and confidentiality,” she says. “If you don’t have support from management, the program will end up a failure. Management must believe a literacy program is important for employees and the company. And guaranteeing confidentiality helps encourage employees to get involved.”

According to NAB, basic skills programs have increased productivity, reduced errors and improved sales and on-time delivery at various companies around the country. Of course, the key to solving the lack of basic skills in the workforce is what happens after class adjourns. Training is not a one-shot deal. It took Motorola eight years to complete basic skills training for 8,000 of its production workers. The City of Phoenix continues to educate its employees. And if you believe the research that as much as 20 percent of the American workforce may still be functionally illiterate, then you’ve got to believe implementing a workplace literacy program is a must—no matter how long it takes.

Workforce, April 1999, Vol. 78, No. 4, pp. 76-78.