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Behavioral Training The ABCs of Workplace Literacy

As long as he kept a low-profile and didn’t draw attention to himself, Gilberto Hernandez figured he could coast through life with limited reading and writting skills.

Hernandez dropped out of school in the ninth grade, entering the workforce because he needed money to pay for food, clothing and shelter. Prior to landing a job as a groundskeeper for the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department in 1997, Hernandez toiled as a janitor for the Phoenix Elementary School District. It was a good job that paid well.

Still, he was nagged by the notion he could do better, maybe one day even go to college. So last year, when the City of Phoenix offered Hernandez the chance to attend six hours of classes per week to improve his reading, writing and math skills, and work toward his General Equivalency Diploma, the 31-year-old groundskeeper returned to school for the first time in almost 20 years.

The Phoenix Literacy Program began in 1988 after a citywide study revealed that many employees lacked the basic skills to be considered “promotable.” The program has since served more than 1,000 city employees from seven different departments. “They come out with enhanced skills and increased self-esteem,” says June Liggins, Phoenix personnel curriculum and training coordinator. “The program has not only made for more productive city employees, but has met our demands for a future workforce.”

“Ever since I started taking classes,” says Hernandez, “I ve had a whole new outlook on life.”

Even Hernandez front-line supervisor, John Melisko, reports that “not only have his communication skills improved, but he seems more confident in himself. He always has been a good employee; now he s a better one.”

As much as 20 percent of the American workforce may be functionally illiterate. In everyday work life, this deficiency translates into secretaries who can t write letters free of grammatical errors, workers who can t read instructions that govern the operation of new machinery, and bookkeepers who can t manipulate the fractions necessary to compute simple business transactions.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance of Business (NAB) and the National Institute for Literacy estimate employees lack of basic skills results in a $60 billion loss in productivity for American companies each year. Why? Because workers who can t understand warning signs or shipping instructions cause mistakes, workplace accidents and damage to equipment.

According to a 1994 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.2 percent of U.S. employers provided basic skills training. And the skills shortage will only get worse, thanks in part to the integration of information technology into the U.S. workplace. Gone are the relatively simple single-product assembly lines of yesteryear; in today s high-tech workplace, one assembly line may produce a dozen items, each with its own complicated set of directions.

As American companies retool to meet the demands of a new global economy, workers must continually upgrade their knowledge and skills to qualify as “promotable.” It s little wonder that U.S. presidents and pundits alike continue to hammer home the need to improve employee education, efficiency and well-being. There used to be a time when people who were functionally illiterate could find jobs. No longer. Modern economies demand a well-educated labor pool, and skills have become the key competitive weapon.

There used to be a time when people who were functionally illiterate could find jobs. No longer. Modern economies demand a well-educated labor pool.

Employees skills are employers competitive edge.
The American Association for Career Education in Hermosa Beach, California, defines literacy as an individual s ability to read, write and speak in English, compute and solve basic math problems, and develop one s knowledge and potential through listening skills. Of course, it s undeniable that all of these skills should be taught in high school, but in many areas of the country, the nation s educational system can t be relied upon to produce literate graduates.

If you believe the research that some 20 percent of the U.S. adult workforce can t read the OSHA instructions posted on a wall, and the dearth of basic worker skills has a direct impact on company productivity, then how can you afford to ignore the problem? Yet most companies will spend money to implement, say, a new statistical process-control program, only to discover their workers don t have the ability to synthesize the information. As technology becomes even more footloose, employees skills become the employer s competitive edge.

Myron Kanning, vice president of human resources for Batesville Casket Co. in Batesville, Indiana, discovered several years ago that workers at his company s manufacturing plants didn t possess the skills necessary to conduct on-the-line quality analyses of burial caskets prior to the final control inspection station. “We tried to get our employees to assume more responsibility, which would have led to improved productivity, but they didn t have the confidence to handle even routine decisions,” recalls Kanning. “In order to move forward in a rapidly changing market, you have to make sure employees at lower levels can assume greater responsibility. But you can t empower someone who can t read and write.”

According to a 1998 survey by the Manufacturing Institute s Center for Workforce Success in Washington, D.C., one third of manufacturers report that job applicants have inadequate reading and writing skills, and nearly one fourth report that job applicants have inadequate oral and communication skills. It s estimated that deficient employee skills have prevented one in five manufacturers from expanding.

“We ve got a lot of smart machines, but few smart workers,” says Phyllis Eisen, executive director for the Center for Workforce Success. “As an industry, we re dancing as fast as we can to catch up. Manufacturers are spending billions of dollars every year on education and training just to make up for what other institutions have failed to do in the past. Right now, there s a huge lag in productivity on factory floors across the country because workers can t learn the new technology.”

There s definitely not a lack of funds available for adult literacy programs. Both the federal and state governments provide millions of dollars each year for adult-education and family-literacy programs; private sources expend additional millions. But the problem persists. And, more to the original point, as changes in the nature of work require accelerated skills and training, the lines between workers and supervisors and managers blur as “work teams” help raise creativity and productivity. Increasingly, those companies most dedicated to training their employees to do it better, faster and cheaper will get the jobs.

“To move forward in a rapidly changing market, you have to make sure employees can assume greater responsibilities. But you can’t empower someone who can’t read and write,” says kanning.

Enhanced employee skills mean better business.
Most everyone agrees illiteracy exists as a serious problem in society. Attitudes associated with workplace literacy problems, however, vary widely. Some CEOs and human resources managers believe a lack of basic skills in the workforce isn t their responsibility—that it s up to employees to learn on their own how to better read and write. Others realize they ve got to stop blaming the falling standards on someone else, and to stay competitive, workplace illiteracy must be treated like any other business crisis.

According to one survey canvassing more than 300 executives, 71 percent reported that basic written communication was critical to meeting the changing needs in the workplace, yet only 26 percent offered any kind of training. And while 47 percent of the executives recognized the need for workers to improve basic math skills, only 5 percent proffered any kind of basic math skills training.

So what s going on here?

Well, to begin with, HR managers know there are never any easy answers in solving a workforce problem—especially one as sensitive as adult illiteracy. At Batesville Casket Co., for example, a literacy program instituted several years ago failed to garner the support of its own employees. “They were too self-conscious to even come forward and participate,” says Kanning.

This is not at all atypical. It s estimated that 10 percent of the millions of Americans who can t read or write never participate in literacy programs simply because they don t want to admit, particularly to an employer, that they can t read or write.

“Research indicates the illiteracy stigma is comparable to that experienced by victims of sexual abuse,” says Jack Fenimore, president of Newburgh, Indiana-based Literacy Now, a nonprofit distributor of educational material. “A high percentage of people won t even admit to their own family members that they can t read and write.”

Raising adult literacy standards.
Although most HR managers realize, however loosely, the link between productivity and the basic skill level of employees, many still ignore the importance of workplace training in improving competitiveness. “Human resources managers need to ask themselves, ‘What improvements haven t we been able to do because of the low skill level of our workforce? ” says Steve Mitchell, senior director in workforce development for the National Alliance of Business.

So what can you do about it?

Too often, corporations spend money on employee training for managers, supervisors and salespeople, but ignore those at lower levels of the workforce. Time and resources need to be committed to solid training programs that will combat adult illiteracy. Between 1986 and 1994, for example, Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola Inc. spent $40 million to train 8,000 of its production workers in basic skills.

Around this same time, the company also started assessing job applicants who were interested in working for its factories. “We needed people with the skills and competencies to learn and apply new knowledge,” says Don Moretti, director of human resources selection and assessment for Motorola. A program was developed based on extensive job analysis. “We defined those requirements that would lead to success, then developed a test to measure those identifying components.”

The results? “People who scored high on the tests also possessed high performance skills,” says Moretti. “And people who scored low on the tests possessed low performance skills.”

The three-hour assessment test consists of multiple choice questions in four different areas: practical arithmetic, reading and comprehension, forms completion and visual tracing. There s also a video-based assessment tool. Moretti admits there s a certain investment that s needed by any company looking to develop an assessment tool, “but we have a dollar value that can show our return, over using just a non-valid selection process.”

The company finally discontinued its basic skills training in 1994, “mostly because our existing workforce had already been trained,” says Jim Frasier, manager of learning research and evaluation for Motorola University. “We also know that our incoming workforce has the required skills because they ve passed our assessment test.” These days, Motorola revalidates literacy and other workplace skills, but focuses mostly on how employees can improve their critical thinking skills.

There’s a gap in the kinds of skills and knowledge Corporate America has and the kinds of skills and knowledge Corporate Americans will need in the future.

Maintaining employees skills is crucial.
Helene F. Uhlfelder, Ph.D., is director with the Atlanta office of AnswerThink, a management consulting firm. She says that right now, there s a gap in the kinds of skills and knowledge Corporate America has and the kinds of skills and knowledge Corporate Americans will need in the future. “Which means you have two choices: You either screen applicants differently, or you train the ones in your existing workforce. It all comes down to priorities.”

And your priorities should meet not only the needs of your employees and customers, but also the needs of your company. The City of Phoenix came to the conclusion that programs had to be confidential, voluntary and customized. Other Phoenix features include attending classes on city time, courses matched to meet individual needs, and programs instituted at no cost to city departments. On the other hand, Batesville Casket Co. offers self-pacing and self-study. Managers should settle on whatever works best for each particular company.

“If we don t invest in our employees today, we won t maintain our industrial status in the world,” warns Eisen of the Center for Workforce Success.

Competitiveness in the 21st century will turn on the quality of the country s workforce, not just on its technology and management know-how. By creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable enough to improve their skills, employers not only engender loyalty, but increase productivity. Boosting employee literacy isn t just good social engineering, but an economic necessity.

Workforce, April 1999, Vol.. 78, No. 4, pp. 70-74.