Dealing with illiteracy and innumeracy in the workplace

Addressing the training needs of employees with literacy and numeracy difficulties is possibly the tallest order facing learning and development (L&D) departments – even raising the issue can be embarrassing.

The issue is not a person’s inability to read, write and count rather, it’s functional illiteracy and innumeracy. This is an inability to read, write or use mathematics or computer skills in an efficient way for everyday situations, such as understanding timetables.

It is a huge issue highlighted by the October 2003 government-commissioned Skills for Life Survey: A national needs and impact survey of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills.

This claimed that in England, 5.2 million adults aged 16 to 65 have literacy levels below Level 1 – the level of skills required to achieve a GCSE at grades D to E. Some 14.9 million adults were said to have numeracy skills below this level.

Dismal picture

Lord Leitch’s November 2006 report on skills painted an equally dismal picture, and prompted the government to launch several support programmes, such as Train to Gain and Skills for Life, with the aim of encouraging businesses to tackle literacy and numeracy issues.

According to John Brownbill, head of The Outsourced Training Company (TOTC), a training provider offering literacy programmes, the issue typically affects manual staff. But the problem is difficult to quantify because a large number of people remain under the radar.

Jaine Clarke, director of Skills for Employers at the Learning and Skills Council, says there are many tell-tale signs of literacy issues. These include: a reluctance to contribute or even attend team meetings an unwillingness to take on responsibility or promotion and hostility to changes or the introduction of new working procedures. Plus – more obviously – a lack of understanding of written instructions, an inability to spell correctly, and being more prone to errors and sickness absence.

Sue Southwood, development officer for literacy and numeracy at the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education, says L&D can carry out skills checks in the form of an organisational analysis, learner survey or job descriptions and person specs. But, she says, support must be offered in a positive way – as an opportunity to improve, rather than a problem.

Clarke adds that any businesses which sign up for the Train to Gain programme will also receive L&D programme support via a ‘skills broker’, which will help organisations assess the needs of their workforce.

Brownbill advises employers to adopt a considerate and individual approach to literacy programmes, which means using a range of delivery methods.

“Courses can involve having a number of students in one class working at different paces or one-to-one training – depending on the student’s needs. Some people wish to be taught alone as they feel intimidated and embarrassed, whereas, others will enjoy sharing experiences in small groups. Programmes must be flexible as each individual has their own learning style.”

TOTC, which operates learning resource centres in two of the Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham manufacturing plants, says its courses are available in a variety of formats, including paper, audio material, DVDs and via computer.

Tailored training

Brownbill says his company works closely with clients to identify skills development requirements and offers tailored training solutions. A paper-based or online assessment is conducted to identify the current level of each learner. This is followed by an individual learning plan created by the learner and tutor.

Training can then be delivered in a variety of ways: TOTC has learning centres that clients can use or tutors will go into the workplace to conduct training. Brownbill says the benefits related to basic skills training experienced by Ford include increased employee confidence, lower absenteeism, and higher productivity.

Ufi, which operates Learndirect literacy programmes, offers online literacy training. Regional partnership manager Sajaad Minhas says: “An employee can work at their desk, at home or in their local Learndirect centre – and as they don’t need to be in a specific place at a specific time, this can be worked around shifts and peak times at work to reduce the impact on the business.”

Case study: McDonald’s

Restaurant chain McDonald’s runs an e-learning literacy programme, which is available to any of its 67,000 UK-based employees.

Entitled ‘Our Lounge’, the online course is available at every one of McDonald’s 1,200 branches across the country. Delegates can also work from home or via an internet café.

Students define their own learning timetable with online support from an individual tutor. McDonald’s estimates that it takes each employee an average of 35 to 40 hours to finish the flexible course, working in their own time or during breaks.

Our Lounge enables individuals to obtain externally-recognised qualifications – such as GCSE Level 1 or 2 in maths and English. The company claims more than 1,000 people have now signed up to the education programme since its September 2006 roll-out.

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