Get a proper read

For managers, workplace literacy is a far more pressing problem than it used to be.

A freezing open-pit mine just 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle is the last place you'd expect to find a classroom — let alone one filled with workers eager to learn how to read. The chief qualification for toiling in an area of continuous permafrost for Canada's first diamond mine, after all, would seem to be brawn, not brains. Today's mines, however, are filled with computerized equipment with complicated manuals that many university grads would surely find hard to decipher. And even warehouse workers and drivers need to be able to read and write, since trucks have high-tech global positioning systems, and safety manuals need to be digested and daily logs filled in.

When BHP Billiton's Ekati Diamond Mine went looking for aboriginal employees to meet the hiring quotas it agreed to with the Northwest Territories government, though, it found some otherwise capable workers struggled with even a Dick and Jane reader. “We had to do something to help them develop so they could be functional and safe on-site,” says Trevor Weir, the mine's training superintendent. “There were some that couldn't read a stop sign if it wasn't in the shape of a stop sign.”

The answer was to create a literacy program that used materials found on the job as teaching aids, rather than grade-school texts. Today, Ekati spends up to $500,000 each year on training programs to help employees learn to read, get their high-school equivalency or learn a trade.

While it's probably no surprise that there's a literacy problem in some of Canada's remotest communities, it's by no means merely a local issue. Just like little Johnny, the fictional character educator Rudolph Flesch used 50 years ago to shed light on why many Americans can't read, Canadians get a failing grade when it comes to being literate — or having all the “essential skills,” to use more modern parlance, to do their jobs properly. Don't believe it? Consider this: only 52% of Canadian adults can be classified as fully literate, according to Statistics Canada. That doesn't mean nearly half the country's workforce can't read or write — although 22% have difficulty with those. Rather, they have trouble understanding and using information. In a world that requires higher communication and processing skills than ever before, it's a serious problem. In 1988, the most recent year for which figures are available, the Canadian Business Task Force on Literacy estimated poor reading skills cost businesses in this country $4.1 billion annually — $1.6 billion in lost time due to workplace accidents attributed to illiteracy and $2.5 billion in lost productivity.

Since then there has been little increase in literacy numbers, and workplace complexity has only increased with computers now a mainstay of even the most menial jobs. Retail clerks take online tests to ensure they understand company policies and products; factory workers punch in quality assurance data; and heavy-equipment operators drive computer-controlled machinery. And as the definition of literacy has expanded to include such things as comprehension and numeracy, even those who have finished high school or better can have problems, especially if they haven't cracked a book in 30 years. “Literacy is like a muscle,” says Christine Featherstone, president of ABC Canada Literacy Foundation in Toronto. “You either use it or lose it. CEOs that get it, understand that [teaching literacy] is good for the bottom line, but it's also good for their employees and for the community.”

In the 1,600-person Ekati mining community, spending a couple of hours in a warm classroom would seem just the ticket to escape the bone-chilling cold, particularly when up to half the time spent learning is paid for by the company. But if someone isn't participating, back to the pit they go. BHP takes its training seriously, especially since it spends half a million dollars a year on workplace education, some of which is underwritten by the territorial government. There are currently about 100 employees enrolled in the courses, about a third of whom are either preliterate or have less than a Grade 5 education, and there's a waiting list to get in.

A range of classes — from basic literacy to apprenticeship training — is important for the initiative's success, as few like to admit they can't read. “We're not just available for low-level literacy — we help a lot of different people in a lot of different ways,” says Susan Devins, one of three adult educators at Ekati. “Supervisors will send us presentations and ask us to review them for plain language. People are continuously in and out of our office asking for input or involved in different ways. So just because you're with an educator doesn't mean you can't read.”

Ideally, the program will help someone with no education work his way up to becoming a supervisor, or perhaps even better. But, in the meantime, measuring success is tricky, particularly at the lowest level, where improvement is very gradual. “We're talking about attitude changes, changes in confidence, being able to participate in meetings or discussions, bringing ideas forward for improvements,” explains Devins.

That kind of development is hard to quantify — but it hasn't stopped BHP Billiton and other manufacturers, such as Boeing Canada Technology, Palliser Furniture Ltd. and Honeywell Ltd., from offering similar programs. Hamilton steel maker Dofasco Inc. measures the success of its literacy program by factors that include increased health and safety awareness, more employee participation and a better culture. Kim Brooks, Dofasco's human resources development co-ordinator, likens literacy to eating an apple a day: “You know that it's good for you, but can you tie it directly to being that good for you? Not all the time — but you still know it is.”

Dofasco started an essential skills training program in the spring of 1997, after noticing that some of its employees just weren't understanding why and how the company was restructuring through the early '90s. That gap, combined with a huge increase in the demands of new computerized equipment, led Dofasco to realize it had a problem on its hands. Today, it spends about $50,000 annually on its program, which teaches roughly 35 employees in 12-week sessions twice a year. They cover everything from improving reading skills to basic computing to business writing — but all classes have a literacy component. “In a perfect world, we wouldn't need the program tomorrow,” says Brooks, “but I don't see that happening.”

Literacy is more than just reading and writing. It now includes all the different ways that people use text and understand how it is presented, which are constantly changing. It also includes how people use the knowledge they have. That scope adds an additional layer of complexity for managers trying to figure out whether their employees don't (or won't) understand, says Toronto workplace consultant Mary Ellen Belfiore. Co-author of Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace, Belfiore says literacy should be considered a practice, one that faces all the same challenges as any other workplace practice in being used, adapted and accepted. “Educators can teach people how to fill out the forms, but it doesn't mean they're going to fill them out,” Belfiore says. “Literacy is totally wrapped up in risk, opportunity, blame and acceptance.”

But if employees are given a chance to improve themselves, they'll usually take it, say those who've set up literacy training programs. And that sets them up for further development. Little Johnny may learn to read, but workplace education requires much more these days. “Years and years ago we used to think a high-school education was all you really needed to move ahead in life,” says ABC's Featherstone. “We need more and more skills. Unfortunately, the bar keeps moving up.”