Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eight Thoughts about Essential Skills (Basic Literacy for the Workplace)

The second major plenary session of the Work and Learning Knowledge Centre was devoted to literacy.

Thought One: Although my mother started in training as a literacy trainer, I typically don’t give it much thought. To be honest, few of the training sources I follow do either and, when they do, the coverage they provide is small. It’s usually an elective session or secondary article in a magazine or journal.

Instead, the training sources I focus on tend to focus more on leadership, management, technical, and sales training. Then I remembered my statistics of who gets the most training and this limited coverage of literacy was clear—basic skills training is usually at the bottom of the list of the types of training provided by employers and the one on which they spend the least.

Thought Two: In many cases, literacy skills are what holds people back from advancement in the workplace. These jobs seem like double dead-end jobs to me now—not only do they pay bad and offer no advancement opportunity, but they’re the employees in which employers are least likely to invest any development dollars, so these people are stuck in these jobs forever.

Thought Three: That’s bad enough, but general understanding of literacy is really simplistic—and reporting of the numbers isn’t much better. The current statistic is that 42 percent of the Canadian workforce has literacy problems.

That number doesn’t seem credible because nearly all of us hearing it assume literacy solely means functional literacy—that is, the ability to complete job forms, read official correspondence, and generally read, write and conduct arithmetic at the fifth grade level. When that definition is used, only 16 percent has problems (though the reports apparently bury that statistic, preferring instead to highlight the larger number).

The additional 26 percent lack some other type of literacy skill that’s deemed essential in the workforce today. In some cases, people are functionally illiterate in English or French but are quite facile in their own languages. (Doesn’t help much in the workplace here, but some credit should be given.)

In other cases, complex modern life requires several other types of literacy: computer, financial, health and so on.

Thought Four: Most employers don’t want to provide any training on these skills because they feel like the employee will walk once they get skilled and the investment is not worthwhile.

That’s probably a false assumption because (a) employees who receive this training tend to be a bit more loyal (indeed, some feel obligated to stay as a way of thanking the employer for the training), (b) employees who receive this training tend to be more productive if, for no other reason, they’re able to understand things on their own and do things without receiving additional assistance. Not surprisingly, some business groups that have studied the impact of literacy training have found that it has a great return on investment (ROI).

Thought Five: The Toronto-based group ABC hired a marketing firm to develop a campaign to promote literacy training and its benefits. Although I felt the effort was well-intentioned, I felt that the images used and stories told would be as appropriate to describing my weight loss with Weight Watchers or a recovery process from drug or alcohol addiction as it was to describing literacy. (Although I happened to really like an image with Velcro, suggesting that the more literacy one has, the more good things that come to you.)

As a result, I don’t think it could have the impact it could have.

If it were me, I’d be far more aggressive about promoting this issue—confronting the double dead-endness in these jobs, the changing definition of literacy—including offering a self-test in which a large number of people who thought they were literate (indeed, they might even have a university degree) would actually qualify as illiterate) and, eventually, directly confront the inequities in training investments between executives and lowest level employees (which are as high or higher than the salary inequities) and how that ultimately plays out in flat earnings.

Thought Six: Most of the people at the conference believe that governments need to fund this efforts because the private sector won’t because of the fears stated earlier. And with most of the recipients at the lowest end of the wage scale, expecting learners to pick up the cost of their training seems to be unrealistic.

To be honest, government’s record here isn’t so consistent. Most projects seem to be pilots that are cut off after 2 to 4 years. Even when a program works, it isn’t likely to continue because the funding is going to be yanked. The issue becomes a political one rather than the more basic issue of helping people become more effective (and, if they earned more, they would also pay higher taxes).

More significantly, the federal government here apparently used to fund most literacy efforts but these were cut in the 1990s to reduce the budget deficit. Although the budget is in surplus now, responsibility for literacy training has been devolved to the provinces, who also have to pay for primary and secondary education, health care, and the crumbling infrastructure, among other things.

Thought Seven: It seems that some out-of-the-box thinking might be helpful here. Some thoughts: Because popular understanding of the concept of literacy differs significantly from that of the experts, the public needs some literacy training on what literacy is.

  • Because literacy encompasses far more than reading, writing and arithmetic, perhaps governments might (a) continue to sponsor efforts to define these other literacies and (b) publish a series of guides for the general public—perhaps provided freely on their websites and for a fee in print form—that helps people self-assess their own literacy, (c) encourage private providers to develop materials to develop materials to build their own literacy skills (in instances where that might work, like financial literacy) (my guess is that they we’d end up with a series of books like the Dummies books

  • Sponsor annual or bi-annual surveys of training (like that conducted in the US by TRAINING Magazine) to identify the distribution of training among workers and to make the public aware of this distribution, to raise awareness of the problem of too little literacy training.

  • Provide significant incentives for employers who provide literacy and related training for workers, especially those in the lowest paying jobs. Tax credits certainly help; so would cost-sharing programs.

  • Because, in some instances, the primary literacy issues are in the area of language, perhaps governments might provide incentives and financial support to employers who will hire highly skilled workers who lack these language skills. Because this is not practical unless the problem can be limited to a limited number of languages that the employer needs to manage, such a program could encourage employers to provide skilled work in a particular field in a particular language or two. For example, one company might agree to hire engineers who speak Spanish and Farsi; another might agree to hire social workers who speak Mandarin. Workers would also receive language training in English or French as part of the agreement. In this way, immigrants would also get the Canadian work experience that some employers say is a barrier to considering them for employment.

As I learn more about Quebec’s Law 90 and how it has evolved over the years, however, I am increasingly convinced that this becomes a good structure for other entities to promote training.

Thought Eight: And I say this as a general believer in the free market. I am only a “general” believer, however, because left solely to its own, it often does not behave in the interest of the greater good (even though the theory suggests otherwise). Look only at the tainted product scandals, sub-prime mortgage mess, Enron, and the general failure of the trickle-down economy to provide real income gains for the average worker even with sustained economic growth.

Or, to use a more commonly understood metaphor, as sports games require referees to keep the playing honest, so the market does, too.

No comments: