Tackling literacy in the workplace

June 2017

By helping workplaces address their literacy and numeracy issues, the Skills Highway initiative is improving the working and personal lives of many employees, as well as boosting productivity and performance for their employers.

student literacyAbsenteeism in the workplace often spikes when training is scheduled. Completing forms fills many workers with dread. Poor literacy and numeracy skills are what often underpin low productivity and prevent workers putting themselves forward for leadership roles.

According to OECD research, more than a million New Zealand adults have less than optimal literacy skills (43 per cent) and numeracy skills (51 per cent) for a knowledge-based economy. New Zealand’s low levels of literacy and numeracy have been identified as contributing to our relatively low productivity.

Improving adult literacy and numeracy is therefore a priority in the Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–2019 and one initiative that appears to be making inroads in this area is the Skills Highway programme. Funded by the Government, Skills Highway is helping organisations to address the literacy and numeracy issues that stand between them and a more productive workforce.

Run by the Industry Training Federation (ITF) in partnership with the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), Skills Highway connects employers with funding, resources and training providers to help create safer, happier, more productive workplaces. Firms involved with Skills Highway report increased confidence and engagement, greater health and safety awareness, and improved workplace culture and competence on the job.

Janine Wallis Martin, basic programme advisor for Downer, says the initiative has indeed brought a cultural change to their workplace. The company now has an approach that people need not see poor literacy and numeracy as a problem, but an area in which their employer can help.

David O’Connor of training provider Learning Wave says it is not so much about employers wanting their people to read and write better, it’s about reducing waste, improving productivity, and lifting culture and engagement.

However, Downer employees indicate that the benefits of the literacy and numeracy programmes extend beyond the workplace. For Downer worker Eric Darlow, the journey of learning to read has had a big impact on his work, and also on his life. Another Downer employee says he can now budget, something he has never been able to do previously.

Carter Holt Harvey is another company supporting its workers with improving their literacy and numeracy. In addition to providing training programmes, it has strived to use more plain-English signage and add more pictures where appropriate.

“Our most important resource is our people,” says Doug Hallberg, Whangarei site manager for Carter Holt Sawmill. “If we invest in training our people, we’ll get a return every single time.”

Carter Holt employee Jamal Uiese has now set himself career goals as a result of the training.

“I’d like to see myself as a shift supervisor and go from there. I wasn’t really one to learn from a book, but it’s made things a lot more interesting, and I can see a better future.”

It was a similar story for Pacific Homecare support worker Tulai Luamanu, who now has her sights set on becoming an aged care nurse.

“This programme helped me to build my self-esteem and my confidence. I’m now looking forward to going to MIT to study more about the English language. This course has given me the courage to go further,” she says.

With English being a second language for 90 per cent of Pacific Homecare staff, chief executive Hamish Crooks knew literacy training was essential.

“It’s a great workforce. Multi-lingual, multi-talented. It participates more now than it ever has.”

Firms like Pacific Homecare are recognised each year as part of the Skills Highway Award, sponsored by the Tertiary Education Commission and delivered as part of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust’s Diversity Awards. The award celebrates workplaces that can show how they have helped improve their employees’ reading, writing, maths and communication skills, and consequently improved business outcomes.

This year’s award was won by Silver Fern Farms in Dargaville. The company had always carried out literacy and numeracy assessments on new staff but until recently had not followed up the results. An analysis of process issues resulting in products being rejected at rollout stage and staff not delivering critical health and safety aspects within tasks, revealed many of the team couldn’t read important documents or put what they read into context within their day-to-day roles.

After analysing staff literacy and numeracy results, the company decided to apply to the employer-led Workplace Literacy and Numeracy Fund from TEC. The fund was used to employ a National Certificate in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Education tutor to support a programme allowing for one-on-one support for trainees provided by mentors, as well as group sessions, which would be available to all staff who wanted to be a part of it.


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