Literacy in infrastructure: How great is the need?

Marcia_Huso.jpgBy Marcia Huso
Literacy/Numeracy advisor

The Tertiary Education Commission is currently running an awareness campaign regarding literacy needs in the workplace (Skills Highway).  But how relevant is this for infrastructure - an industry that traditionally has allowed students to enter directly from college and work their way up through the ranks over the years? As in any industry of a hands-on nature, there is a large turnover of staff in infrastructure workplaces.  Could this be due, in part, to unaddressed literacy needs - not only of the trainees, but of the supervisors, and even management?

Literacy involves more than reading and writing.  It entails effective communication in whatever form, including spoken language.  Tasks requiring literacy range from filling out a daily job report, writing an accident report, giving oral instructions to workers, to giving an audio-visual presentation using the latest technology.  Many workers find these tasks challenging because their literacy skills are undeveloped.

So, how great is the literacy need in infrastructure?

Research suggests that 25-30 percent of people working in infrastructure have literacy needs.  If you are not sure whether your workers have literacy needs, assistance is available to analyse and identify the needs specific to your workplace. 

Increasingly, employers are recognising that they cannot just ignore literacy needs.  This is especially true in a tight labour market, where organisations that address literacy needs are likely to find it easier to attract and retain staff.

What are the benefits of improved literacy skills? 

The obvious and demonstrated benefits of raising literacy skills are fewer errors, less wastage, reduced accidents and lost time, and more efficient communication.  In addition, there is evidence that raising literacy will also improve morale and productivity.  And these benefits can also be expected to spill over into personal lives and community efforts. 

How do we know our employees have literacy needs? 

There are two problems associated with identifying literacy needs.  If someone has literacy needs, they are likely to have developed a myriad of strategies to hide them from others.  Many people with literacy needs are expert at this, hence it can be very difficult to recognise them and provide the support they require.

The other problem is that different levels of literacy are required for different tasks.  For example, the tasks of supervisors, managers and machine operators may each require different levels and types of literacy or communication skills.  Finding out what is required for each task, and for each job, can be a daunting exercise. 

What are the specific signs of literacy needs?

There are many signs that can help us to work out whether an employee has literacy needs.  For example: 

  • Does the worker ask others to fill out their daily job or accident reports? 
  • Do they regularly take paperwork home (so that someone at home can complete it)?
  • Does paperwork frequently need to be redone because it is incomplete or badly written?
  • Does the worker avoid reading by saying that they do not have their glasses with them?
  • Is there a reluctance to accept promotion to a new position that requires more paperwork?
  • Is there a strong aversion to read or write in front of others?
  • Does the worker appear to have difficulty in following orders or rules?
  • Does the worker continually delegate responsibilities that require unfamiliar skills?

What if I suspect my staff have literacy needs?

If you are in the infrastructure business, we recommend that you contact InfraTrain (details below).  It has experienced staff who can work with you to understand the scale of the problem and how it may be addressed.  This service is normally free of charge.

InfraTrain also works with a variety of specialist literacy organisations including Workbase, Literacy Aotearoa, and Workbridge.  It can put you in touch with the organisation that is most appropriate for your company’s needs. 

For further information email or contact your InfraTrain regional manager on 0800 486 626. 

Contractor Vol.33  No.1  February 2009
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