THOUGHT LEADERS : Productivity: The Missing Link

You have invested in the latest manufacturing technology and pride yourself on the training you offer your management team but productivity remains sluggish. The missing link may be workforce literacy. The best technology and management skills in the world will not improve productivity unless literacy where it matters is also addressed.
Despite workforce where almost everyone can read and write, low levels of workplace literacy are major but under-recognised problem. This is because literacy is not simply about being able to read and write. Workplace literacy is the ability to participate effectively in workplace practices and to communicate, critically analyse and do maths at level relevant to continually changing demands at work.
The gap between the level of literacy skills required for productivity and performance improvement and the actual skills of many in the workplace is far larger than government or business action to date would suggest. Over 40 percent of our workforce has levels of literacy that in many cases are insufficient to allow them to do their job properly or to keep up with changing workplace tasks. Improbable as the 40 percent figure may seem it comes from in-depth surveys of adult literacy, language and numeracy skills conducted in New Zealand and 11 other OECD countries.
New Zealand is not alone – most other OECD countries face similar problem. Research shows that around 15 percent of adults have very low literacy and numeracy skills. And further 27 percent can only cope with simple, clearly laid out, familiar material.
Workplace demands are rising as technology and complex quality and accountability processes become commonplace. Productivity and competitive manufacturing practices increase the literacy demands of jobs and require higher levels of literacy.
These practices and other workplace changes mean ordinary employees are expected to become knowledge workers, contribute solutions, self manage and problem solve within teams. Employees in position to contribute ideas to improve processes and to see at first-hand when systems are failing, often do not have the specific technical vocabulary and confidence to be able to communicate and make themselves understood.
They may feel uncertain interpreting facts or dealing with implied or contentious information. So they prefer not to try. New Zealand’s workforce literacy inhibits our ability to increase productivity, innovate and meet changing customer and market demands. We are less able to compete and succeed in the global economy.
I describe low workplace literacy levels as the missing link in the country’s drive to improve productivity, but it is also the invisible link. Employers are often surprised to discover that New Zealand has such large number of people with literacy gaps.
Literacy skills are often overlooked when we describe job skills because to experienced operators and managers literacy skills are so embedded in job tasks, they are no longer obvious. We expect adults to have all the literacy skills they need, but is that realistic in world where market demands and technology are changing the way we work on an almost daily basis? The literacy skills of school leavers are higher than ever before, but higher levels of literacy, numeracy and communication are being demanded by industry today.
People with literacy gaps are still participating at work and in their communities, using the skills they have, but often struggling with some tasks. They may seem reluctant to take on new responsibilities, or turn down promotion because they don’t have the skills to cope. Even small literacy gaps can hold people back.
Everyone agrees that productivity improvements and highly skilled workforce are crucial for New Zealand business. What is less agreed is how to make effective inroads into productivity and skills.
On the positive side, many businesses have introduced literacy training to their workplace – either directly or through Industry Training Organisations. They report significant improvements in errors and wastage, reduced accidents and lost-time injuries, improved communication and team work, better morale and retention, and as result, productivity.
Much more needs to be done. We need to clearly identify the literary skills needed in different work roles and industries. Often the literary skills needed are not identified as crucial work skills and the gap between the job and the employee’s skills is never clarified. Importantly the training undertaken to address that gap needs to be job specific. Adults are best able to develop literacy skills in meaningful authentic context. For the workforce, that context is the workplace or industry.
In the next budget we are likely to see Government’s response to address literacy issues. However the Government can only provide part of the answer – we need employers to start identifying the missing link in their productivity chain and integrate literacy into training.

Katherine Percy is chief executive of Workbase.

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