Literacy shortfall pushing employers to act

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Alison Sutton is the Manager, Literacy and Family Learning at COMET Auckland.

Auckland’s workforce has a real challenge on its hands, with 44% of Auckland adults with low literacy and 51% with low numeracy. That’s 420,000 adults with low literacy and 470,000 with low numeracy. These low skills impact on the productivity and capacity of local companies.

However, we have lots of evidence that literacy training at work can make a real difference. Employers are well placed to help improve the situation and make gains for their bottom line, as well as helping their staff.

Many New Zealand companies have completed workplace literacy programmes over the last decade but the job is far from complete. HR professionals can assist employers in implementing workplace literacy programmes that deliver better outcomes for all involved.

Literacy in the workplace affects employers and employees

How does low literacy impact upon employers? When literacy levels are raised, there are fewer errors, less waste and better health and safety so that workplace accidents are less likely.

Companies that are committed to improving their employees’ literacy skills have improved quality, customer service, employee involvement, and increased productivity. Workers also have a better ability to implement new technology, lean manufacturing, and change in the workplace.

Companies can grow their productivity and reduce costs. At the same time, employees become more skilled at work, better equipped to keep their jobs or advance and better able to support their children’s learning. That’s a win-win situation.

An unexpected bonus from workplace literacy is that it makes a difference at home. Raising adults’ literacy levels has a real impact on the life chances of their children, because parents (plus grandparents and other family members) become more confident to help their children learn.

Workplace literacy provider Workbase closes its doors

We need to take low literacy at work seriously – that’s why it is such a shame that after more than two decades of providing programmes and support for workplace literacy, numeracy and communications, Workbase has closed its doors. Workbase was the original and longest standing workplace literacy provider in the country and has been a powerhouse of expertise and innovation over the last 24 years. The government will make sure there is still sufficient local capacity so Auckland companies have access to the support they need to build the skills of their workforce.  

A key recent innovation is the support for employers to get funding directly to organise workplace literacy for themselves. Effective programmes can be implemented through company-wide and scalable initiatives, which does of course require a company investment but the advantages and potential for increased productivity far outweigh the cost.

Programmes at work to increase employee literacy

The benefits of running a workplace literacy programme are tangible, and many companies who have done this have generated increased profitability, better staff retention, and cost savings.

Communication skills are at the heart of effective workplace literacy programmes. Everyone benefits when employees speak out more at team meetings, are more confident to raise quality issues and ask questions or ask for help when they don’t understand. That’s why speaking and listening form part of every workplace literacy programme.

Workplace literacy programmes enable employees to do workplace specific tasks such as the paperwork for quality systems needed by team leaders, the maths to understand a new system, or the critical reading needed for new health and safety rules.

Boosting literacy levels takes investment and collaboration

To boost literacy levels, it’s important for government and employers to both invest in cross-sector commitments that reduce the pipeline of young people leaving school with insufficient literacy and numeracy, and also support existing employees struggling with low literacy and numeracy. 

For HR professionals, implementing an effective workplace literacy programme that upskills employees and delivers better business outcomes can be personally rewarding as well as an opportunity for professional development. Employers and HR staff can look for more information about workplace literacy from the Skills Highway.

Head to for more information on literacy and numeracy across Auckland.

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