Back to basics

When it comes to literacy, numeracy and language skills, the UK workforce lags well behind its major competitors. The UK is only sixth in the European literacy and numeracy league tables, behind Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and The Netherlands, according to the National Literacy Trust.

Of the 23 million people in work in the UK, about three million have poor levels of literacy and nine million poor numeracy. Statistically, then, most organisations will employ staff, including managers, who are not as effective as they could be.

The problem is a huge one, according to Robert Nurden of the Workplace Basic Skills Network, a national organisation based at Lancaster University. “The construction industry alone believes that 1bn is lost every year as a result of poor basic skills. Twenty per cent of retail staff have no qualifications and lack basic skills, or have spoken English needs. The main skills gap reported by the retail industry is in written or verbal communication – a vital skill for this or any industry,” he says.

It is estimated that 10bn overall is lost each year by UK business as a result of low levels of these basic skills.

So how can HR managers recognise whether there is a problem? Nurden believes the tell-tale signs are many and varied. He says: “Look out for people who forget their glasses rather than admit they cannot read, or wrong or lost orders in the warehouse. Contravention of health and safety regulations because they cannot be understood is common, so too is shoddy workmanship because an employee prefers to make a ‘guestimate’.

“Look for any kind of fudging or inability to complete forms. For managers, poor report-writing skills or an inability or reluctance to use IT may give the game away.”

If you intend to introduce a change programme, you will need to ensure that all your staff are willing and able to change.

At W Lucy, an Oxford-based manufacturing company employing 400 staff, HR manager Carol Clark had to introduce a change programme for the company to remain competitive in response to technology changes and competition within its industry.

“As a result of redundancies, morale was low and we had a problem with staff retention, as well as a need to retrain to cover the loss of skillsets. We needed a workforce trained and flexible enough to meet future challenges. We realised that under-performing employees were having a negative effect on business performance. For instance, two employees could not read, write or count, which was affecting other members of staff. Our change management strategy had as its core a basic skills training programme”.

The evidence was enough to make Clark contact the Basic Skills at Work team at Oxfordshire County Council. Working with Clark, it put together a small pilot scheme to address the identified training needs, and it grew from there. Initially, many employees felt awkward about taking part in training, but being able to meet the staff who would be delivering the training helped to put people at ease. Training was conducted in an informal, non-threatening manner, and training materials were tailored to the workplace.

The result is that Clark has seen improvements on all fronts.

“There is now a positive attitude to learning and continuing professional development. Our employees have gained confidence and are more open to change. Managers are managing better, and there is greater efficiency. Working relationships have improved, and employees have become more approachable,” she says.

Basic skills are high on the government agenda, and employers can take advantage of many initiatives that are free of charge at the point of delivery.

Recognising problems and helping staff build basic skills will create a more confident and able workforce.

 Where to get help

For free advice on tackling literacy and numeracy in the workplace or to arrange a visit from a workplace skills adviser, call Learndirect on 0800 100 900. Advisers will help to identify your basic skills needs and arrange help

Sector Skills Councils are tasked with leading the skills and productivity drive in industry sectors. Many have developed learning resources tailored to their industries. Ring the Sector Skills Development Agency on 01709 765444 or visit

Business Link supports workforce development and operates a network of local advisers. Call 0845 600 9006.

Employer Training Pilots (ETPs) are run in many areas. They offer an assessment of staff training needs and reimburse the wages of staff who train during work hours. See to find out if there is an ETP in your area.

Your local college may be able to run basic skills sessions on your premises and at times to suit your business needs

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