The findings from the international 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey are alarming. The survey showed that 1.1 million New Zealanders (43 per cent of adults aged 16 to 65) have literacy skills below those needed to participate fully in a knowledge society. Over 80 per cent of those people are in the workforce.

Workplace literacy and numeracy is more than just reading and writing; it is about a whole range of skills from accomplishing a task, to communicating, to working within a team, to adapting to new technology and approaches.

Literacy skill issues typically reveal themselves in lower productivity and higher error rates and can be a barrier to learning new things.

Tackling workplace literacy

While the primary and secondary education sectors have initiatives in place to tackle literacy and numeracy from an early stage, improving literacy in the New Zealand workforce falls mainly on the shoulders of the industry training organisations (ITOs).

In 2007, the Industry Training Federation (ITF) partnered with Business NZ, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, and Workbase (the national centre for workplace literacy and numeracy) to produce a blueprint for addressing workplace literacy issues, Key Steps Forward for Workplace Literacy.

A number of initiatives arose from the blueprint, including the ITO Literacy and Numeracy Good Practice Project that was funded by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and helped establish resources to support ITOs embed literacy and numeracy into industry training.

Agriculture ITO’s approach

One ITO that has been exemplary in its approach to literacy training is AgITO, the ITO for the agriculture sector.

Mike Styles, literacy, language and numeracy (LLN) advisor for the ITO, says that all AgITO trainees attend training in Level 2, 3, and 4 courses through the TEC’s Adult Literacy and Numeracy Assessment Tool (ALNAT) so they have quality information about their literacy and numeracy skill levels.

This information, and that pertaining to literacy and numeracy learning that occurs naturally in the workplace, is helping AgITO to gain a better understanding of the LLN issues they are facing and enabling them to embed literacy and numeracy into its training resources.

“We have set up a mentoring programme to support trainees who have literacy and numeracy problems. Mentors are volunteers who work with our trainees to address low-level LLN issues.”

 In an effort to upskill its staff on LLN issues, the ITO has also put all its staff through the ALNAT. It is working with its training providers as well as employers in the sector to keep them informed about LLN issues.

Styles says the ITO has arranged for a large number of its trainees to be awarded with their school-based NCEA qualifications, based on the industry training they have done with the AgITO.

“The value of this is that it serves to change trainees’ mindsets about how capable they really are. Many of our employees left school with no qualifications and have the mindset that they are ‘thick and stupid’. In reality, they are clever people – but they were let down, in part, by the school sector.”

AgITO received much praise for undertaking one of the most thorough projects in New Zealand looking at Return on Investment from training. It found that an average dairy farm with staff undertaking training could expect to benefit by at least $8,239 per trainee, per year. Even after allowing for the costs of training, that was a return on investment of 340 per cent and for beef and cattle farmers, a 490 per cent return.

Skills Highway

The Skills Highway programme, managed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, was established in 2009 to champion the benefits of workplace literacy training and to connect New Zealand employers to organisations and resources that will help them, through its website.

The Skills Highway Award celebrates those employers who improved the reading, writing, maths, and communication skills of their workforce and boosted business outcomes at the same time. The Award is part of the annual ANZ New Zealand & Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust Work & Life Awards and is open to businesses of all sizes.

This year’s winner, announced on 30 August 2012, is City Care Ltd, a leading provider of construction, maintenance, and management services across New Zealand’s infrastructure and amenity assets. The company prides itself on providing trades-related training, pre-apprentice programmes, and management training programmes.

City Care HR manager Adrian Watson says the company used workplace literacy training to improve employee effectiveness and productivity.

“City Care management’s perception was that both the company and employees were being held back because of low levels of literacy and numeracy in a full range of job roles,”
says Watson.

In addition to working closely with the relevant ITOs, City Care worked with Christchurch training provider, Hagley Adult Literacy Centre (HALC), to research, design, and deliver a training programme. A pilot was run in 2010 in Christchurch and offered to 15 managers, supervisors, and trades and non-trades employees. Based on the pilot’s success, a nationwide programme in literacy, numeracy, and computing was rolled out in 2011 to a “vertical slice of staff” of 137 people.

The results have been excellent, not just in terms of staff confidence and morale, but in terms of financial savings for the business. City Care is confident that the time savings as a result of the training will amount to around $1 million per year.

City Care certainly appears to be a worthy recipient of the award, but there are many shining examples emerging of businesses offering literacy programmes in an effort to tackle literacy concerns in the workplace.

With more organisations adopting initiatives like those taken by companies like City Care, ITOs like AgITO, and learning centres like Literacy North Shore (see side story), a follow-up survey on workplace literacy skills is bound to show an improvement on the damning 2006 results.

Literacy a lesson for overseas-trained teachers

DAVID BURKE-KENNEDY shares how improving Mele Tonga’s literacy skills helped improve her life.

Thirty-four-year-old Mele Tonga has her heart set on becoming a primary school teacher in New Zealand.

But there’s just one problem: her literacy skills.

Teaching was her life in Tonga before she and husband Nippon moved here in 2009 to be closer to family.

But like many overseas-trained teachers hoping to continue their profession here, she came up against language barriers.

“I was a teacher in Tonga and would like to teach in New Zealand also,” Mele says. “To do this I need to improve my English. I came to Literacy North Shore in 2011 and started the Certificate in Foundation Communications through the Open Polytechnic. I also go to an ‘English for Employment’ class and a ‘Speaking and Listening’ class at Literacy North Shore.”

Some of the trained volunteers working with students like Mele are former teachers with extensive experience in teaching English as a second language as well as other subjects.

They’ve qualified through a Literacy Aotearoa annual study programme for the Certificate in Adult Literacy Tutoring.

It is a part-time, Level 5, NZQA-approved course comprising 80 hours contact study and 50 hours supervised practicum.

It covers the historical and contemporary contexts of adult literacy provision in New Zealand, adult learning and tutoring, planning, assessment and evaluation, and literacy tutoring strategies.

Literacy North Shore, as one of 45 Literacy Aotearoa members, offers free training. However, participants must commit to volunteer tutoring with them for 40 hours on completion of all Certificate requirements (in addition to any paid work such as workplace training programmes run by the organisation).

The work is rewarding – if only because students are determined and dedicated to achieving outcomes to help improve their lives.

They range from immigrants to multi-generational New Zealanders of all age groups, ethnicities, and occupational status.

Some are unskilled; others qualified or business management experienced. Some are business owners wanting to improve their communication skills. Others have qualifications gained in their home countries – but poor English literacy skills have limited their employment opportunities here.

Mele Tonga reflects the determination of many students to improve their opportunities. Along the way, she has worked as a packer and then volunteered to work in a retirement village, which led to her present employment. She completed the Certificate in Foundation Communications (Level 1) in July.

Her goal is to be able to study for her Diploma of Teaching in a couple of years.

 “I learned the most useful things, how to use a computer,” she says of her Literacy North Shore studies. “I can send email, attach something, and find a job on internet. I can use a dictionary to find some words that I didn’t understand. Sometimes, when I’m reading, it’s very hard to understand, but I try hard looking in the dictionary.

“This course has helped me to be more confident. I’m more confident to do a job interview, fill out form, or make any appointments because I have improved my learning. I’m also more confident to speak. I can write an application letter, and I have improved my numeracy. It helped for my family budget.

“I have been really happy doing this course. It has helped to improve my life.”

David Burke-Kennedy is chairman of Literacy North Shore and a broadcaster/journalist and media marketing consultant:

Source: Education Review


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