CASE STUDY: Releasing Fletcher Aluminium’s invisible handbrake – Workplace Literacy : a win-win situation

English is second language for 85 percent of Fletcher Aluminium’s 150 manufacturing staff. Obviously this creates some issues. Happily, though, staff and company management are working together – with the help of an external party – to lift literacy levels and improve productivity and workplace satisfaction.
Workers who are not comfortably literate in English find it difficult to participate fully in meetings and training and could also be at risk from health and safety issues. And the company runs the risk of lower productivity affecting competitiveness in tough market.
Recognising both these potential problems, Fletcher Aluminium teamed up with education provider Workbase three years ago to provide literacy support for its staff. Workbase has carried out literacy training programmes with over 100 companies ranging from plastics to food processing to furniture manufacturing to aged care, predominantly in the Auckland region.
Fletcher Aluminium’s HR manager Warwick Milbank says before the Workbase programme was implemented, he was aware it was difficult to get some members of staff to contribute at meetings. The company wanted to hear ideas about how to improve the workplace but staff members were too shy and lacked the confidence to speak up. Milbank says the company did conduct pre-employment tests but shortage of appropriately skilled workers meant some slipped through and were employed despite not meeting the required literacy standards.
In his 12 years with the company, and 21 years with Comalco before Fletcher Aluminium took over, Milbank says he never really understood the level of literacy of the staff.
“I can talk to someone but that doesn’t give you any understanding. They say ‘yes’ as though they understand you, but you do see people doing things wrong so you begin to understand that they don’t really understand you at all,” Milbank says.
Much of the time the staff spoke their own languages on the job which, while helpful in keeping the workforce engaged with one another, also meant management were often unaware of issues.
This lack of understanding became problem when the company wanted to introduce new philosophy and build self-managing teams. It wanted teams to make their own decisions rather than being told what to do.
“We couldn’t go down that track unless we had higher level of communication skills and understanding,” Milbank says.
It was essential to get buy-in from the staff – making it equally essential that communication levels rose.
It wasn’t until Milbank spoke to colleague at Fletcher Easy Steel that he realised how Workbase could help and he gained the confidence to give it go.
The process began with discussions about what Fletcher Aluminium wanted to achieve. Workbase then conducted an assessment of literacy skills and made presentation to senior management. It wasn’t difficult to get their support. Workbase also helped Fletcher Aluminium achieve up to 70 percent funding for the programme.
For its part, Fletcher Aluminium established learning room where the Workbase tutor could work one-to-one with participants, and provided computer and other equipment.
Milbank knew that promoting the programme as literacy skills course ran the risk of insulting those who needed it most. For example, one participant held university degree from his home country but struggled with English. To combat this, the programme was presented as communication skills course.
“We decided we could handle 20 [participants] at time,” Milbank said. “We asked for 20 volunteers and got 40.”
Each programme lasts 48 weeks. Due to the company’s shift hours, employees must do some learning in their own time, but there are no complaints as the benefits flow through to their life outside work. The training has meant they can now help their children with homework, use the family computer or talk to their bank manager, things they did not have confidence to do.
Graduates of the programme are presented with certificate at special morning tea celebration.
While Milbank is reluctant to share the figures, he says productivity has definitely improved. Health and safety has too.
“We have been two years now without ‘lost time accident’,” he says.
“The difference has been massive. People are now challenging the status quo, they are contributing at meetings and they feel more confident at work.”
These things couldn’t have happened if the staff did not understand what the company wanted to achieve.
One not so positive aspect for Fletcher Aluminium is that some participants gain so much confidence they apply for other jobs, but that’s training risk the company is prepared to take.
Milbank says one man had his heart set on being panel beater. After completing the Workbase programme, he successfully applied to do panel-beating course at MIT and left Fletchers.
Workbase’s tutor for Fletcher Aluminium is Marisa Maclachlan. She agrees that calling the programme communication skills course reduced the stigma that might otherwise be attached to it.
“Communication skills is more accurate term for what we do and literacy is part of communication skills,” Maclachlan says.
Each course starts with setting goals.
“I give people an idea what to expect and let them know the company goals – why we are here – so they understand within the context of what the company wants to achieve.”
While Maclachlan is trained ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutor, the focus is not on teaching English. However, she says the course does need to be tailored to the English level of each participant and different materials are used if necessary.
“I do an assessment at the beginning to see what the needs are. Most have enough English to be able to communicate in English.”
Any English language teaching is in the context of other topics such as health and safety and hazard identification. Maclachlan and the staff member go into the factory with digital camera and take photos of potential hazards. These are used to show staff how to fill out hazard reporting forms.
“People feel they don’t want to create problems or rock the boat but the health and safety manager is very clear that he wants to hear about any hazard and there’s nothing too big or too small.”
‘Smart’ (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) goals are introduced. Communication styles are discussed and participants are encouraged to be assertive. Listening skills including good questioning techniques, clarifying and paraphrasing are taught.
Maclachlan says she has found that many participants have fear of computers. She unplugs all the cables and shows them how to hook the computer up and get it working again.
“They know how it looks at the back so they are not so scared any more.”
She teaches basic computing such as familiarity with the keyboard, locating files on the computer and writing and sending emails if it is relevant to their job.
“In the three years I have been here we have gone from having only couple of people in the team working with the computer to everyone on the factory floor being able to process orders in their area.
“In the first year I ran the programme, only couple of people had computers at home. Now the price has come down and more than half have computers at home. I make sure they know how to access the internet and find the newspaper of their home country, which is way to support literacy development doing reading in their own time.”
Some participants now take minutes at their team meetings and type them for distribution – something they would not have been able to do previously.
Milbank has nothing but praise for Maclachlan.
“She is proactive and has become part of the company in many ways.”
He says Maclachlan looked at the company induction programme and made some changes so it would be more understandable.
“She made us aware that even if we think it is simple, if it goes over their [the staff’s] heads, they will switch off.”
Maclachlan is also not afr

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