Magazine article Workforce

The ABCs of Workplace Literacy

Magazine article Workforce

The ABCs of Workplace Literacy

Article excerpt

As long as he kept a low profile and didn't draw attention to himself, Gilberto Hernandez figured he could coast through life with limited reading and writing skills.

Hernandez dropped out of school in the ninth grade, entering the workforce because he needed money to pay for food, clothing and shelter. Prior to landing a job as a groundskeeper for the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department in 1997, Hernandez toiled as a janitor for the Phoenix Elementary School District. It was a good job that paid well.

Still, he was nagged by the notion he could do better, maybe one day even go to college. So last year, when the City of Phoenix offered Hernandez the chance to attend six hours of classes per week to improve his reading, writing and math skills, and work toward his General Equivalency Diploma, the 31-year-old groundskeeper returned to school for the first time in almost 20 years.

The Phoenix Literacy Program began in 1988 after a citywide study revealed that many employees lacked the basic skills to be considered "promotable." The program has since served more than 1,ono city employees fi-om seven different departments. "They come out with enhanced skills and increased selfesteem," says June Liggins, Phoenix personnel curriculum and training coordinator. "The program has not only made for more productive city employees, but has met our demands for a future workforce."

"Ever since I started taking classes," says Hernandez. "I've had a whole new outlook on life"

Even Hernandez' front-line supervisor, John Melisko, reports that "not only have his communication skills improved, but he seems more confident in himself. He always has been a good employee; now he's a better one."

As much as 20 percent of the American workforce may be functionally illiterate. In everyday work life, this deficiency translates into secretaries who can't write letters free of grammatical errors, workers who can't read instructions that govern the operation of new machinery, and bookkeepers who can't manipulate the fractions necessary to compute simple business transactions.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance of Business (NAB) and the National Institute for Literacy estimate employees' lack of basic skills results in a $60 billion loss in productivity for American companies each year. Why? Because workers who can't understand warning signs or shipping instructions cause mistakes, workplace accidents and damage to equipment.

According to a 1994 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.2 percent of U.S. employers provided basic skills training. And the skills shortage will only get worse, thanks in part to the integration of information technology into the U.S. workplace. Gone are the relatively simple single-product assembly lines of yesteryear; in today's high-tech workplace, one assembly line may produce a dozen items, each with its own complicated set of directions.

As American companies retool to meet the demands of a new global economy, workers must continually upgrade their knowledge and skills to qualify as "promotable." It's little wonder that U.S. presidents and pundits alike continue to hammer home the need to improve employee education, efficiency and well-being. There used to be a time when people who were functionally illiterate could find jobs. No longer. Modern economies demand a well-educated labor pool, and skills have become the key competitive weapon.

Employees' skills are employers' competitive edge.

The American Association for Career Education in Hermosa Beach, California, defines literacy as an individual's ability to read, write and speak in English, compute and solve basic math problems, and develop one's knowledge and potential through listening skills. Of course, it's undeniable that all of these skills should be taught in high school, but in many areas of the country, the nation's educational system can't be relied upon to produce literate graduates. …

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