Back to basics: How HR can tackle substandard literacy and numeracy

Substandard literacy levels might not affect someone’s day job, but can still damage the bottom line. Nadia Damon reports on how human resources can tackle a lack of basic skills.

Literacy and numeracy issues cost companies employing 1,000 people or more as much as £500,000 a year in reduced productivity, according to the former Department for Education and Skills, yet many employers remain reluctant to tackle the problem.

“Most companies, regardless of sector, understand the need and benefits of having a skilled workforce, but are often simply too busy to take the necessary action,” says Jaine Clarke, director of Skills for Employers at the Learning and Skills Council. She claims government schemes such as Train to Gain or Skills for Life overcome this by bringing training to the employer.

Government efforts to combat what is often dubbed ‘functional illiteracy’ – that is, the inability to speak, read, write or use mathematics or computer skills in an efficient way for everyday situations – went into overdrive following the Leitch Review of Skills, published in December 2006. It warned that the UK would fall well behind other developed countries if it did not make moves to address literacy problems.


But what is the scale of the challenge? According to Leitch, 15% of the UK population were functionally illiterate, and 21% innumerate, in 2005.

The government’s answer was to launch initiatives such as Train to Gain, and encourage employers to sign up to its skills pledge. This commits employers to developing the basic skills of their workforce to at least Level 2 (five GCSEs at grades A-C or the equivalent).

But along with the usual training considerations, many employers are wary of touching what is often a very sensitive – and highly individual – subject.

John Brownbill is head of the Outsourced Training Company, a training provider that has been running literacy programmes with car manufacturer Ford since 1994. He says employers must tread carefully with literacy – especially as many people who are functionally illiterate prefer to stay outside the radar.

“Often the problem has come from a negative educational experience, which has given them low self-esteem and little or no faith in the educational system,” he says.

Handle with care

Sue Southwood, development officer for literacy, numeracy and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) at the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education, says employers must handle literacy issues with care, but adds that learning and development departments can address the issue in a number of ways. First, by raising awareness of the problem and exploring how it affects their business, and then by using job descriptions and person specifications as a starting point for identifying the language, literacy and numeracy skills required for each job.

She says any support is offered in a positive way, perhaps as an opportunity for self-improvement, as opposed to telling people they have a problem.

Brownbill advocates a one-to-one approach so that the training can be tailored to specific employee needs.

“What can sometimes be a sensitive issue can be dealt with more privately,” he says.

While training often takes place on-site, Clarke recommends that companies use independent training providers and colleges to help ensure staff receive nationally-recognised qualifications.

She says Train to Gain programmes can include work-based learning to minimise disruptions to productivity. Courses can involve students at different levels within one class working at varying paces or one-to-one training, depending on the student’s needs.

It is also possible to deliver training via a variety of formats, such as paper-based and audio material, DVDs and computer.

Case study: Enfield Asian Carers Consortium

Along with some vocational training issues, the Enfield Asian Carers Consortium identified some basic literacy and numeracy problems within its workforce.

Using funding from Train to Gain, it signed up for Learndirect’s online literacy skills modules as part of a carer training programme.

“Many of the staff required support with literacy or numeracy, but needed flexible learning to suit their demanding work schedules, says consortium manager Arifa Kapasi.

“The Learndirect literacy courses are very valuable and provided good support in completing the NVQ simultaneously. Many of our carers have gone on to complete the Health and Social Care NVQ level 2, which supports the national care framework.”

The literacy programme can take up to six months, depending on a person’s time and ability. Kapasi says six workers have now completed the course, but says the availability of the online material has prompted a number of other people to enrol.

Training news in brief

Youth on the move

Younger staff are far more likely to up sticks to a new employer if they’re unhappy with the training they receive. Some 33.8% of 16- to 24-year-olds said they would look for a new job if their employer offered little training, according to a survey on employee engagement by HR services company Ceridian. Just 17.1% of 45- to 54-year-olds, and 18.6% of those over 55, said they had considered quitting if there were few training opportunities. The survey was based on an online poll of 1,006 UK office workers in December.

Migrant staff endangered

Health and safety watchdog the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has warned of another Morecambe Bay-type tragedy if non-English speaking migrant workers don’t get the training they need. The warning followed IOSH research conducted with a group of 26 food industry employers, which showed half of respondents thought their organisation’s health and safety training for non-English speaking migrants was poor.

Nuclear passport

A pilot scheme for a nuclear ‘skills passport’ is set to start next month. The passports will record details of skills, training undertaken, and continuing professional development. According to Cogent, the sector skills council for the oil, gas and nuclear industries, it will help staff “develop their skills throughout the nuclear sector”. Skills minister David Lammy approved a national skills academy for the nuclear sector last September.


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