Magazine article Management Review

The Fight against Illiteracy: How One Company Is Making a Difference

Magazine article Management Review

The Fight against Illiteracy: How One Company Is Making a Difference

Article excerpt

The Fight Against Illiteracy:

How One Company Is Making A Difference

Several years ago, we in management at Rocco Inc., a privately held poultry company in the small town of Harrisonburg, located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, realized that our firm had a problem. A number of plant employees--who had tenure and a history of good work--wanted to be promoted. Sadly, we couldn't oblige. The reason? These good, loyal employees couldn't read or write.

Unfortunately, these employees are not isolated. Of our 1,750 hourly workers, almost one in six did not finish the eighth grade. Many of Rocco's employees had to quit high school when they were young so that they could help to support their families. In addition, Rocco is particularly hard hit by illiteracy because our business is labor intensive--much of the work must be done by hand--and Harrisonburg is in an agriculturally based economic area.

Our problems reflect similar problems in Virginia statewide: According to the Department of Education, 13 percent of Virginians over the age of 20 have less than a fourth grade education.

We realized that we had to do something to help our illiterate workers. So, we decided to launch a company-wide campaign against illiteracy.

Now that we had made a commitment, we had to find the answers to a lot of difficult questions. First, we considered sponsoring onsite conventional classroom workshops, with outside tutors. The problem with this approach was that we couldn't find office or factory space to double as a classroom, and individual instruction is simply too expensive. With new respect for the complexity of our task, we set out to educate ourselves. How had other companies handled this issue?

We learned that some smaller companies had worked with local educational institutions, such as community colleges, to address the problem. Still others rely on state and federal programs and monies to implement a literacy program. For example, Domino's Pizza, after discovering that many employees could not read the instructions for making pizza dough, applied for and received a grant from the Department of Labor. On the state level, agencies such as the Virginia Office of State Adult Literacy fund and administer many local programs.

Group efforts among businesses to fight illiteracy also had been tried. This avenue seemed particularly promising, especially when we learned from other area employers how widespread illiteracy is in our industry.

While we were recruiting allies from our industry, we made an exciting discovery: A citizens' group concerned with local literacy efforts, the Skyline Literacy Coalition, had formed a year and a half earlier. In January 1988, the coalition had learned about a Department of Education grant, called The Workplace Literacy Partnerships Grant Program. But there was one stipulation: the Skyline Coalition had to find a sponsor from the private sector. We were delighted to oblige.


We teamed up with another industry firm, WLR Foods, Inc., that had made a firm commitment. We were also joined in our battle by the Virginia Poultry Federation, the Massanutten Technical Center (a vo-tech school based in Harrisonburg), and James Madison University. With the aid of the Skyline Coalition, we applied for the grant.

In May 1988 the grant proposal was written and sent to the Department of Education. The Advisory Committee, a steering committee made up of representatives from each participating group, kept in touch by phone almost daily, eagerly awaiting the government's decision. Finally, a $300,000 plus, 15-month grant was awarded in October 1988.

Now that we had seed money, we had other, philosophical obstacles to contend with. First and perhaps most important are the different levels of competency among employees. One employee may need only a quick review in order to pass the General Equivalency Diploma (GED), while another may not be able to read at all. …

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