Improving your Workplace Literacy

A Big Problem, Getting Bigger

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) runs a survey "Literacy and Life Skills", as part of a worldwide OECD survey.

It shows that 46% of Australian adults have problems with their literacy, numeracy and problem solving. It ranges from the moderate - like the inability to understand rules such as "there, their and they're" - through to an inability to read safety documents, emergency procedures, operating manuals, customer procedures and team communications.

It causes conflict in the workplace, incorrectly completely documents, resistance to change, valueless training, and productivity loss.

The Australian Industry Group researched the issue and found nearly 75% of companies have moderate to severe problems with literacy.

It shows up in a number of ways.

  • 70% of Australian adults prefer to take their information as video because they have difficulty understanding text
  • Workplaces suffer productivity losses because training isn't comprehended
  • Employers see wasted time and money with wrongly completed documents
  • Workplaces become fixed around procedure, because problem solving and innovation are absent.

Understanding the Problem

People who have reading difficulty have "holes" in their comprehension of text. They look for words they recognise by sight ("sight reading") and guess at the rest ("contextual guessing").

Because they don't know how to decode ("sound out") they have no way of working out words they don't recognise.

Try your luck at understanding this passage (from a Health & Safety Statement).

[su_quote]The company is _________ to _______ing the safety training needs on an _______ basis. Staff will be ________ in the __________ of hazards in the office and advised of the _________ hazards __________ to their area. Staff will be trained to respond to such hazards in order to prevent accidents/injury to _________, their _________ and clients. All staff will be trained in __________ _________ and where __________, staff will be trained in the use of special _________ and ________. All staff will be trained in the correct ___________ involved in safe manual handling.[/su_quote]

This is how it actually reads ... 

[su_quote]The company is committed to identifying the safety training needs on an on-going basis. Staff will be involved in the identification of hazards in the office and advised of the particular hazards pertaining to their area. Staff will be trained to respond to such hazards in order to prevent accidents/injury to themselves, their colleagues and clients. All staff will be trained in emergency procedures and where appropriate, staff will be trained in the use of special machinery and equipment. All staff will be trained in the correct techniques involved in safe manual handling.[/su_quote]


Rewording and Simplifying

The paragraph is poorly written. Words like "pertaining" in a workplace simply creates problems, even for people who have average literacy.

There are too many words - "Staff will be trained to respond to such hazards in order to prevent accidents/injury" can be simplified to "We will train you to avoid accidents".

It can be written to avoid the multi-syllables and lengthy words, and the sentences can be shortened and paragraphs separated into more easily read sub-paragraphs ...

[su_quote]The company cares about your safety. We check our workplace often to know what risks and dangers exist, and what safety training is needed.

All workers will be asked to tell us of any dangers they are aware of. We will make a list of all dangers in your area.

We will train you  how to avoid accidents and what to do if an accident happens. 

All workers will be told what to do if an emergency happens, and we will train you how to use machines properly, and how to properly lift and move things.[/su_quote]

However, you can see that there are certain key words which are essential to a workplace literacy program, for example, "train", "risk", "danger", "accident", "safety".

The program contains an assessment of your workplace, the signs, keywords and phrases that are essential, and includes these in the program.

Workplace Literacy is defined, not simply as reading and writing, but as a comprehensive set of skills which allow a person in INTERACT with text to achieve positive outcomes, for workers, managers, colleagues and customers, as well as the community in which the business is situated.

The modern workplace is no longer the simple environment of 50 years go. Today, the modern employee, even on the factory floor, is a "manager of technology" - repetitive unskilled human  processes have been replaced by machines, or computers.

Examine the graph below - it shows the trend in the demand for unskilled labour, compared to skilled labour.

Changes in the demand for skills

The graph shows that in Australia and elsewhere, the demand for a highly skilled workforce is continuing, while low skilled jobs are disappearing. The same trends will be happening in your business.

The educated get more educated ... 

Approximately 53% of people aged 25-64 with a tertiary-level education participated in formal and/or non-formal education, compared with 23% for people in the same age group with below upper secondary education.

That is, people with already high-level skills continued to study at twice the rate of non-tertiary skilled people.

But businesses still want more ... 

Between 55% and 61% of Australian employers report difficulty locating skilled employees.

  • this reflects the ongoing demand for skills
  • and the higher wages achieved by the skilled
  • the skilled shortage is seen in the number of 457 visas given to cover shortages

But a skills shortage can co-exist with unemployment

  • the Australian workforce is becoming more skilled, but not at the same rate as the demand for skills is increasing
  • this results in a significant cost of skilled labour
  • at the same time, nearly 1 in 5 workers are unemployed, which correlates with the ABS finding that roughly half of the 46% of sub-literate adults are unemployed.

Business must train.
It is almost impossible to dismiss an employee based on a lack of training.

Australia is currently among the counties with the lightest regulation of dismissals, behind
New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Chile. The Fair Work Act in 2009 increased severance pay for long service workers in Australia, and introduced a new provision preventing employers from dismissing a worker on the basis of redundancy without first considering opportunities for redeployment within the company or an associated entity of the company.

The implied definition of genuine redundancy is one of the most restrictive in the OECD. Moreover, the size threshold for exemption from the main employment protection provisions was reduced from 100 to 15 workers.

If an employee has insufficient skills for the job they were employed for, or has been assigned to, it is the responsibility of the business to train them for the position held, or carry a skills mismatch in the business.