Te Arapiki Ako
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3. The workplace as a context for strengthening literacy and numeracy

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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:30 by NZTecAdmin

Here are the detailed descriptions for the four key understandings in this area:

Key understanding 3.1

Research findings

Employers need greater flexibility and higher levels of skills from their workforce as work becomes more complex and uncertain, the number of unskilled jobs diminishes and the pace of technological change increases. This applies to employees throughout organisations, including on the factory or shop floor.

The workplace is one of the most important contexts in which adults learn. Employees need a range of generic and industry-specific skills and competencies for their current and future employment which means they need to participate in training throughout their working lives. Employers need staff capable of fulfilling current roles and of handling changes in work processes. Investing in a competent and learning-oriented workforce is one way for employers to build a competitive advantage.

Employees may be involved in learning through formal on- and off- job training linked to national qualifications. They may receive training linked primarily to the particular demands of a specific workplace or they may be learning on the job in ways that are informal and not accredited (taking place as a side effect of work).

Implications for practice

Learning focused on workplace needs is likely to be motivating for many adults. This includes workplace literacy programmes as well as other off-job training opportunities where literacy and numeracy skills can be embedded.

References: (MacCormick, 2008; Tynjälä, 2008; Vaughan, 2008) (Ryan, 2007)

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Key understanding 3.2

Research findings

To participate successfully in new work processes (such as multi-skilled or self-managing teams, or new quality and compliance regimes) employees require some degree of competence in ‘soft skills’ such as communicating effectively, building relationships and managing and understanding information from a range of sources. Adults need oral language, literacy and numeracy skills in order to learn these new skills and effectively participate in training.

In the past these skills did not matter as much. Many people currently in employment entered the workforce when there were fewer expectations for the general workforce to have these skills, but employers increasingly seek employees with literacy and numeracy skills.

Employees with low literacy and numeracy skills are less likely to take part in any kind of industry training and may be less able to benefit from or participate in workplace learning. Unless this is actively changed, these workers will not have the increased skills they need to adapt to workplace changes in the future. Changes include the increasing demand for quality processes and compliance regimes (e.g. health and safety or environmental health) and the increased use of technology in the workplace. Thus, unaddressed low workplace literacy levels will reduce the ability of businesses to become more productive.

The overall capacity of companies to handle new processes or challenges is not enhanced when employers try to reduce the amount of literacy and numeracy expected of employees in low skilled jobs. Some employees lose the literacy and numeracy skills they start with because they don’t have the opportunity to use them on the job. If employers move staff out of areas requiring literacy, develop oral cultures, change work practices and rewrite documentation, employees are less able to participate in other changes that may affect the workplace in the future. Also, endeavouring to strip out literacy and numeracy often means responsibility for literacy and numeracy tasks moves to charge hands and team leaders, making their jobs more demanding.

Implications for practice

Organisations involved in the design and delivery of workforce-related training need to consider current and future needs for literacy and numeracy skills and should endevour to address these as part of their training programmes.

References: (Benseman & Sutton, 2007; Gray, 2006; Lander, 2005; Levenson, 2004; MacCormick, 2008; Reid, 2008; Workbase, Workbase, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c)

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Key understanding 3.3

Research findings

Employers benefit when employees increase their skills to meet the literacy and numeracy demands of workplaces. There may be direct bottom line benefits such as:

  • increased job outputs
  • reduced error rates and less time per task (by both supervisors and employees)
  • reduced wastage
  • accident reduction
  • improved quality of work
  • better staff retention
  • a reduction of absenteeism.

There are often other important but less tangible benefits, such as:

  • better team performance
  • increased participation in team and other work meetings
  • improved capacity to cope with change
  • improved health and safety
  • improved customer satisfaction
  • a greater understanding of the company’s ‘big picture’
  • increased take up and achievement in vocational training.

Participation in workforce literacy programmes also helps employees, who report a range of benefits including the opportunity to progress in their jobs, more job satisfaction, and an improved sense of self-worth.
Employees also benefit in the longer-term if their literacy skills improve. Higher literacy has a

“persistent, positive and statistically significant association with people’s labour force status” (Johnston, 2004, p. 35)

i.e. people with better literacy skills are more likely to be employed, and to earn more, than people with low literacy.

Implications for practice

Workplaces that support learning and in particular workplace literacy and numeracy learning have some characteristics in common:

  • They have a commitment to investing in training and staff development.
  • There is a company champion who makes literacy and numeracy a corporate priority and obtains and maintains a commitment to invest in literacy skills development
  • Management practices communicate the benefits of training to all staff, they involve staff in training development and delivery and they continuously market the training internally to all concerned.
  • Quality partnerships exist between employers, unions, Industry Training Organisations and training providers.
  • Employees are given the opportunity to apply their new skills.

References: (Benseman & Sutton, 2007; Business NZ, New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, Industry Training Federation, & Workbase, 2007; Gray, 2006; Hartley & Horne, 2005; Johnston, 2004; Levenson, 2004; MacCormick, 2008; Reid, 2008; Ryan, 2007; Tynjälä, 2008; Vaughan, 2008, Workbase, 2006a)

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Key understanding 3.4

Research findings

Employers are often not aware of literacy and numeracy issues in their organisations and may need support to make the connections between literacy and numeracy issues and job performance and productivity. This includes support to recognise the literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills that underpin particular tasks or that are required to adopt new work practices or that are implicated in workplace problems.

Sometimes the mix and range of literacy, spoken language and numeracy skills needed to complete common workplace tasks are not evident to employers (or supervisors and employees themselves) who think of these skills as ‘just common sense’. For example, an employee uses a combination of reading, writing, numeracy and speaking and listening skills when they:

  • read a materials specification sheet
  • listen to an instruction about a change to the schedule of production for the day
  • ask questions and talk the change over with coworkers
  • read production data from a display unit on a particular machine
  • understand and interpret the key tolerances and measurements behind the data, and
  • record that data.

Implications for practice

Employers value information on how to recognise literacy and numeracy issues in the workplace. This may include information that help employers with:

  • analysing the literacy and numeracy in specific job roles or within a particular industry often helps make the skills implicit in the job more visible
  • understanding the skills mix of staff through an organisation needs analysis
  • identifying the literacy and numeracy skills required where there are problems such as high product wastage or compliance issues. This information can clarify the reasons for the mistakes.

Employers may also need support and guidance or criteria to assist them select an appropriate intervention such as:

  • redeveloping workplace documentation to make it clearer
  • rewriting induction training for health and safety training
  • providing staff with an opportunity to use the literacy and numeracy skills they have and those they acquire during training
  • training supervisors in managing multi-lingual and multi-cultural teams
  • selecting an appropriate provider to deliver workplace literacy programmes.

References: (Benseman & Sutton, 2007; Gray, 2006; Hartley & Horne, 2005; Workbase, 2006a, 2006c, 2006d)


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