High literacy, numeracy skills key to boosting workforce potential, new report says

The Australian Industry Group has released a new report detailing the limitations low levels of literacy and numeracy among staff has on workplace performance and company growth potential.

The report is a further study into a 2006 survey, Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, which revealed that almost four million people or 40 percent of the Australian workforce does not have adequate literacy, numeracy or problem solving skills,

The new study, When Words Fail, The National Workforce Literacy Project, further explores these issues, to determine the industry perspective on workplace literacy and numeracy.

More importantly, Ai Group said the report it will trial alternative strategies and solutions to tackle this problem in the workplace.    

"Improving literacy and numeracy levels of individuals in the workplace is a complex task that requires concerted effort and patient capital,” Ai Group chief executive designate, Innes Willox said.

"Industry looks to its existing workforce to have the necessary skills to enable enterprises to be successful and compete in an increasingly global economy.  The workforce needs to be able to achieve high levels of skill development to do this.”

According to Willox, the project has demonstrated that with targeted strategies and intensive support significant results can be achieved for the benefit of both workplaces and individuals.

The Ai Group study found 75% of employers survey reported their business was affected by low levels of literacy and numeracy. This figure was not confined to low-skilled segments of the workforce, Willox said.

Only 8% of employers told Ai Group that they had adequate capacity to address the issue.

“Findings from the [report] demonstrate that with appropriate support employers are willing and able to improve the literacy skills of their workforce, but insufficient assistance is currently available,” Willox said.

“Although these foundation skills have received increased attention at a policy level over recent years, greater investment in literacy skill building initiatives is needed if the Australian workforce is to remain internationally competitive.”

The report also revealed that Australian employers were also beginning to make the connection between literacy and numeracy training to productivity and return on investment.

“Evidence from this project indicates that enterprises are ready to apply Return on Investment measures to this area.  More work is needed to further explore and formalise this,” Willox said.

The When Words Fail project has identified a set of recommendations which Ai Group will use to inform the national dialogue on workforce development. 

Up-skilling has been identified as a critical link in boosting productivity at the enterprise level. 

“Action to support this needs to be bold, comprehensive and properly resourced," Willox said.

The report also builds on earlier Ai Group report findings, including a 2006 Ai Group World Class Skills for World Class Industries, which revealed 85% of companies’ survey identified building the skills base of their existing workers as their number strategy for competiveness and growth; a 2008 Skilling the Existing Workforce which exposed that low levels of literacy and numeracy in the workforce were major impediments to up skilling; and a CEO survey conducted in 2009 and 2010 reinforced the centrality of skilling the workforce as the key business strategy for success yet simultaneously confirmed that low skill levels, including literacy and numeracy, were major contributors to skill shortages.

Key findings of the When Words Fail report:

  • Employers are concerned about this issue with more than 75% of respondents reporting that their business was affected by low levels of literacy and numeracy;
  • Survey respondents reported a wide range of impacts resulting from a lack of literacy and numeracy skills, most frequently cited were: poor completion of workplace documents and time-wasting through repeated work;
  • A diversity of training approaches is required to match the diversity of workplace needs including the introduction of short, sharp and intensive programs;
  • There is a need to link workplace literacy and numeracy training to productivity through the adoption of Return on Investment measures;
  • There are benefits from the more widespread use of the Australian Core Skills Framework to assist employers to better understand the literacy and numeracy issues within their workforces;
  • The involvement of managers is critical.  Through exposure they see the benefits of this training. More needs to be done to raise their awareness and capacity in this arena;
  • The participation of supervisors in literacy and numeracy programs provides improved outcomes for workplaces.  The introduction of programs to increase their understanding of these issues would be a positive step; and
  • Participation in literacy and numeracy programs increases the capacity of enterprises to deal with these issues.  There is a need for measures to raise the capacity of enterprises in this area.

When Words Fail report recommendations:

  • Position employers at the centre of the National Foundation Skills Strategy due for commencement this year;
  • Re-focus the strategic direction of workplace literacy and numeracy through the National Workforce and Productivity Agency;
  • Expand resourcing for workplace literacy and numeracy training by increasing WELL funding and introducing new programs;
  • Develop an intensive LLN workplace learning program;
  • Develop and implement the Foundation Skills Training Package to assist workplaces;
  • Incorporate Return on Investment measures into literacy and numeracy training;
  • Use the Australian Core Skills Framework more widely with workplaces; including developing an employer’s guide;
  • Provide assistance to workplaces to raise their capacity; and
  • Expand and resource the literacy and numeracy teaching workforce to assist industry to meet these needs.

To read the full When Words Fail report, click here.