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There is a decade-old story – told by an adult literacy worker in a small industrial town in northern B.C. – of a supervisor demanding that the name of an employee being helped with his reading be revealed. Why? So he could fire him and put in his place someone with higher skills.

Fast-forward to 2008 and this lack of sympathy would cut no ice with Marlyne Harrison. Today the 10-year veteran at Teck Cominco Ltd. (TCK.B-T) is happily opening up to me – and management – about her learning curve through a much-acclaimed scheme to help the 1,500 employees on-site in Trail, B.C. Originally hired as a finance assistant, Harrison was promoted to a buyer before landing her current role as purchasing systems administrator – thanks, in part she says, to her improved computer literacy, skills accrued at the company-funded The Learning Centre (TLC).

Any time you are more knowledgeable on a topic, your self-esteem rises,” the 49-year-old asserts. “It gives you the confidence to pursue and try new things. I have moved ahead within this organization, and I must say my skill level has contributed.”

Employee feedback from its regular job-specific training in the mid-’90s galvanized Teck Cominco into tackling the issue of basic learning. “They told us that they did not have the fundamental basic academic skills to make the most of these initiatives,” explains Carol Vanelli Worosz, the company’s communications manager. After commissioning an organizational needs assessment, it opened TLC on its 142-hectare-wide West Kootenays site in 1998. Since launch day, some 1,100 employees have taken more than 800 courses, from assertive communication and technical writing to an introduction to computers and spreadsheets. In addition to job promotions such as Harrison’s, TLC success stories include cap-and-gown graduation ceremonies for those passing their Grade 12 (although this has been a prerequisite for recruits in recent times) and middle-aged ironworkers receiving bachelor’s degrees. “The goal is to engage people in learning, which obviously has a role in enhancing literacy,” says Vanelli Worosz. “If people feel stronger in terms of their basic skills, they will feel more comfortable in company training programs on-site. Individuals will feel more confident, which transfers into life at home and at work.”

Teck Cominco is one of several B.C. businesses embracing workplace literacy programs, including the Molson Brewery, Hastings Racecourse, the City of Vancouver and Surrey Memorial Hospital. The programs run the gamut from traditional read-and-write efforts to basic computer literacy programs; where literacy was once perceived to be a social issue, many employers are now recognizing it as an economic imperative. The competition from low-cost labour in China, India and Brazil has left workers needing greater skills to handle jobs in B.C., as manufacturing morphs from traditional areas such as textiles and clothing into sectors using more machinery. As Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist with TD Bank Financial Group (TD-T), points out, “Across all industries we are seeing a shift towards more higher-value-added and therefore more sophisticated production approaches. And the skill sets in those positions are much higher, with workers needing more technical skills.”

In the past, those skill sets would likely have been found within the province. “You could certainly advertise for those you were looking for and expect to find it within the general population,” explains Cynthia Whitaker, executive director of Literacy BC, an organization that promotes literacy activities in the province, “whether that was somebody who was already working or was just attracted by your job ad and had the skills.” With the current labour shortage, recruiting their way out of a human-resources challenge is no longer the answer for employers. “They have to be prepared to invest in training workers,” Whitaker opines, “whether that’s training their current workforce or being prepared to bring people in who they know are going to need training.”[pagebreak]And therein lies the rub: four in 10 B.C. adults (although better than the national average of 4.7 in 10) are without the desired levels of literacy for a modern knowledge-based economy, according to the latest International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), carried out in 2003. “I was totally shocked when I first heard that,” TD’s Craig Alexander says. “I could not actually conceive that Canada had a literacy problem; after all, we have a well-developed primary, secondary and post-secondary education system, and I think people like myself take literacy for granted. You can’t really think of a world where people don’t have strong literacy skills. Literacy is the foundation stone; it’s what you build your skills on.”

Boosting literacy rates by one per cent, Alexander concluded last year in a TD report, Literacy Matters: A Call for Action, could lead to a potential payoff nationally of $32 billion – calculated from improvements in GDP and labour productivity from the increase in literacy relative to other countries. Other studies have also confirmed the importance of raising the standard. In fact, Informetrica – an Ottawa-based firm specializing in quantitative economic research – calculates that increasing the Canadian adult average literacy score by 10 per cent (which would affect more than nine million people) would cost $34.5 billion, and it projects a net benefit over the first 10 years of $197 billion.

Part of the problem, Alexander explains, is that generally people think of literacy as a binary outcome: someone is either literate or not. In fact, the bigger picture is helping those people who possess weak skill sets or have low literacy to meet these new demands of the workforce. “If you need a more skilled worker,” Alexander says, “you can’t just go out and find them because there is a huge premium on them. It’s a competitive landscape, and so maybe you should be thinking about raising the skill set of the workers that you have.” (With the top literacy level being 5, Informetrica says the average cost per learner graduating from Level 2 to Level 3 is about $1,250, with an average classroom time of 155 hours; moving from Level 1 to Level 2 and then to Level 3 requires more than 600 hours and around $7,500.) Basic skills training, however, commands only two per cent of Canadian training expenditure, Literacy BC reports.

How low literacy manifests itself is when workers are asked to take on new tasks. “Employers told us that they would give their workers a manual to read, for instance, but because they were too ashamed to say that they did not understand it or could not read it, they just quit their jobs instead,” says Bruce Mack, president of the Williams Lake-based Cariboo Chilcotin Partners for Literacy (CCPL), which liaises with a range of companies in the area to discuss how best to tackle literacy issues. “When they looked back in hindsight, they realized that these guys hadn’t had to do anything that involved reading material before. But if they were told what to do or shown what to do, they were great.”

For Robert Macnair, financial secretary for the United Steelworkers union local in Williams Lake, basic literacy is no longer a nice-to-have skill for his members. “In the past, if you were able-bodied and ready to go to work, so be it,” he says. “That’s the change. In an average day, I get two or three people coming in who need help because they don’t know how to fill out forms with their pension or workers’ compensation – and these forms are pretty easy. There is a big need to help people just with the basics.”

That’s why in Williams Lake – typical of many Interior lumber towns undergoing economic changes – a new workplace literacy co-ordinator, Marc Woons, has been hired. Funded through Literacy Now (an arm of 2010 Legacies Now, a not-for-profit society set up after Vancouver was named host city for the Olympics), Woons is now reaching out to a range of industries including mines, the forestry sector and small and medium-sized businesses to set up programs to help workers.

These days union and management unite on literacy. At Teck Cominco (TCK.B-T), for example, the United Steelworkers are also on the learning centre’s education and learning committee; and Woons has just received funds for literacy research in the forestry sector, backed by the same union, the BC Chamber of Commerce, Conifer (Council on Northern Interior Forest Employment Relations) and Thompson Rivers University. “In terms of direct productivity, retraining or retention of staff, when a company has to recruit someone new because no one within their organization has the skills to adapt to new responsibilities, those are huge costs,” Woons explains. “Same with letting someone go because they can’t adapt. Staff turnover is a very direct cost to employers.” [pagebreak]This financial sting – along with efficiency, productivity and “things at the heart of business” – is, according to TD’s Alexander, the way for industry to understand the need to tackle literacy. Literacy workers agree. “I have seen employers be highly motivated by the issue of safety,” says Diana Twiss, deputy executive director of Literacy BC and a seasoned adult literacy worker. “This is one of the ways we have managed to get into the sawmills and paper mills. They weren’t necessarily motivated by the productivity – they seemed to think that the foreman and the managers are going to control that – but safety is a very big and potentially costly thing.” With the rising number of immigrants in the workforce (IALSS reports that six in 10 newcomers have low literacy skills in terms of English as a second language), basic literacy training is even more critical. In a split-second emergency on an industrialized shop floor, Twiss succinctly illustrates, there’s no point shouting “Watch out!” to a workforce that does not understand English.

For Alco Ventures Inc., a manufacturer of aluminum railings and screen doors that employs 110 people speaking 18 different languages, integrated learning has made all the difference. “It’s difficult to send workers off to a course outside the organization and make it applicable to what you are doing here,” says Ben Hume, Alco’s president. That’s why Tracy Defoe, president of the Learning Factor and a long-standing authority on workplace literacy, spends around eight hours every week on-site at Langley-based Alco, a company that has doubled in size in four years.

Sometimes Defoe’s role is to work directly with a volunteer group of workers on their reading and writing. “Often what I do is work to embed and strengthen literacy and numeracy in other training and work seamlessly in the moment with teams on the floor,” she says, tapping into Alexander’s comment about not calling programs “literacy” per se. “Often this is during other training, at stand-up meetings or in team work around improvements and change. I also work to influence shop leaders, supervisors and managers to be better teachers of the basics in what they do. I show them how to present a chart, for example, or provide information about how the group is doing in a way that extends the skill of chart-reading or makes it meaningful and therefore memorable for the workers.”

Hume, a former national chair of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, chips in, “It is important to know how to become effective in training a new staff member, to get them to fit in effectively in your workforce, particularly when it comes to those who don’t have the same language skills – and to do it in short order. There is talent out there; you just have to free it up.” For Defoe, knowing how both business and learning work is essential. Just as in industry there can be the one-piece flow approach – working on one part until it is complete – the same is true of learning. “If you take everyone as a new puzzle and don’t give them exactly the same training as everyone else,” she explains, “they won’t be bored and you won’t be wasting time on what they already know.”

Defoe cites, in terms of learning, the possibilities for businesses as “cheap, more expensive and Cadillac.” The first two involve making changes within the normal practice of your company – encouraging peer-to-peer learning, for example. “You want to look at the environment and ensure that it is good for learning,” she says. Or there’s the Cadillac option “where you take someone like me,” she explains, “and embed them in your workplace.” In her 20-year experience in workplace literacy, she points out that few people in the general workforce are at the bottom scale of every skill; they are normally Levels 2 or 3. “We find people,” she continues, “who are having problems reviving lagging skills, applying old skills or learning at the pace of change.”

Back with Marlyne Harrison, she admits becoming the go-to person for her peers after taking extra Microsoft Office courses, proclaiming it did “wonders” for her. Running these types of courses requested by employees – and geared around their irregular shift work hours – has been the key to the overall success of Teck Cominco’s TLC. “And no matter what your personal position is,” surmises Harrison, “you are never turned away.” Or potentially replaced – as the story goes – by someone with higher skills.