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A modern workplace in the face of an age-old problem: illiteracy.

The well-being of hundreds of American companies is being threatened by a functionally illiterate workforce. Functional illiteracy is the inability to use reading, writing and math skills to cope with everyday tasks. Many workers cannot read or write above the fourth-grade level. Yet, most of the reading material geared for the workplace is written on a ninth-grade comprehension level. This leaves many workers facing a huge basic skills gap.

According to the Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL), there are 27 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. It is predicted that only one-third of this year's first-graders in Texas will graduate with their class. In addition, nearly 90 percent of the inmates in the Texas prison system have not completed high school.

Illiteracy is a problem that affects the entire nation. It is also an issue that must be dealt with by America's businesses. Why? It is estimated that illiteracy costs American businesses $20 billion every year due to absenteeism, workplace accidents, lost profits, lowered productivity, reduced competitiveness, increased remedial training, lost customers and reduced customer spending.

Options for business

There are several options that businesses can utilize in combatting illiteracy in the workplace. An organization can offer basic skills training through an in-house program, a local literacy council, a local educational institution and by offering tuition assistance or overtime payment for time spent in classes. Some of these options can be used independently; others can be interrelated.

Many companies are facing the illiteracy problem by offering instruction on the premises. Domino's Pizza Distribution Corp. has developed an interactive videodisc (IVD) to teach production members to make pizza dough and improve their literacy skills at the same time. This literacy training program, funded by a Department of Labor grant, is incorporated into their regular training program (see Weinstein).

The interactive videodisc technology will probably be used by many of the nation's larger organizations in their training efforts. IVD uses a laser-read videodisc controlled by a microcomputer. The student reacts to problems presented by the program through a computer keyboard or touchscreen. Since the IVD is an individually-based program, the slower learners will not hold back the fast learners - all students progress at their own pace. Studies have shown the IVD method to be about three times more effective and at least one-third faster at teaching than standard instructor-led classes. By using the IVD, workers will be able to think more independently and cope with company problems, paperwork and problem solving.

In 1988, Duke Power Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina, decided to develop a job-specific training program aimed at employees who did not have the literacy skills needed to pass a written test mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (see Lee). Duke Power is also assisting employees who need more skills for technological and job upgrades. An internal publicity campaign has increased employee awareness of the adult education programs available through local community colleges and vocational-technical institutes.

Motorola Inc. has a stated goal of having its entire American workforce at a seventh-grade reading and math level by 1992 (see Booker). This will be accomplished by the opening of Motorola University.

Since as many as 25 percent of Motorola's workers in its manufacturing and support operations do not meet the goal standards, Motorola plans to reorganize its training and education program. A minimum of 40 hours of instruction per year will be given to each of its 100,000 employees worldwide. In addition to the full literacy goal, the 110 full-time staff members of Motorola University will coordinate other training and educational activities from seeking accreditation and acceptance of Motorola classes at local universities and colleges to working with elementary schools. The employee training will cost an estimated $60 to $62 million, which does not include labor costs incurred while workers attend classes. Any worker who chooses not to participate in the retraining will be terminated.

Company officials agreed that the curriculum should be tied to the workers' jobs as much as possible. For example, when Motorola workers practice arithmetic, they might be asked to figure out how many circuit boards they have put through a machine and how many are left.

The Liberty Mutual Insurance Group offers remedial and advanced literacy training programs to its employees (see Goddard). A career center at corporate headquarters offers courses in 18 literacy and office-skills subjects. A series of remedial and advanced courses is conducted in field offices by company and outside trainers. One-on-one tutoring is offered by local college instructors and funding is given to those employees who attend outside facilities. The typical in-house course includes 15 to 30 hour programs in writing, spelling, mathematics and English as a second language, along with instruction in other areas. The advanced in-house program includes classes in effective writing, reading and listening.

According to Charles LaPier, manager of corporate human resource development, Polaroid Corp. has been involved in basic skills since the 1960s (see Fusco). The Technology Readiness (TR) program is linked to Polaroid's overall organizational effectiveness by supporting the company in reaching its goals in producing quality products and in developing people. The motto of the program is "Learning is part of the job."

There are three main components of Polaroid's voluntary program - assessment, brokered work and company-sponsored courses, which are offered in-house and on a tutorial basis. The assessment is part of the application process for TR courses. Most assessments are made in the math area by an education counselor who interprets results. The company-sponsored courses are the most visible part of the TR program. The courses are offered three times per year, two times a week for a few hours at a time. They take place on company premises and on company time with a class size of about 10 students. Homework is given in every class and tutorials are arranged for employees who need individualized instruction in basic reading, writing and English language skills. Some of the courses offered include English as a second language, reading and writing review, working on a team, problem solving, general math review, math work problems, science overview, basic chemistry and electronics literacy.

In 1988, about 1,300 Polaroid employees took part in the program, and many participants took more than one class. Participants ranged in age from 22 to 55 and included men and women in some nonexempt positions, primarily production jobs.

The Palm Beach Post offers a basic skills program to its employees that teaches reading, writing, math and other basic skills (see Petrini). Also included are three courses of study: English as a second language (ESOL), adult basic education (ABE) and preparation for the high-school equivalency (GED) certificate. The goals of the program include increasing productivity and safety, reducing turnover and allowing more employee advancement.

The instructors are provided by the adult education department of the county school system. This is a voluntary program and is kept separate from the training department so that employees will not see it as something that is required for them to keep their jobs. Usually, there are 10 to 15 students in each class, which allows for individual attention and access to computers. Employees attend classes for four hours per week during regular working hours and are paid their regular wages for this time. Once an employee progresses from the ESOL class to the ABE class, or raises his/her skills by four grade levels in the ABE, The Post will provide a $100 bonus.

Local literacy councils

Northern California's Siskiyou County Library began an adult literacy campaign in 1983 (see Reynolds & Reynolds). The Siskiyou County Library READ (Reading, Education and Development) Project is one of the original 27 members of the California Literacy Campaign. With grant support from the California Library Services Act and other funding sources, The READ Project had 150 students being tutored by 130 volunteers in 1988.

Out of this project came READ Radio, a series of radio dramas. READ Radio entertains the listeners, informs the public about literacy issues, recruits students, tutors and other volunteers and is inexpensive to produce. It stimulates the family to gather together and read with the help of an exciting radio drama. It also involves listeners in the fight against illiteracy through the READ Radio Short Story Contest. In the spring of 1987, READ Radio was honored as one of the "25 Great Ideas" of Project Literacy U.S.

Volunteers from the Adult Literacy Action of Beaver County, Pennsylvania walk door-to-door in housing projects telling residents about their program (see Davis & Fitzgerald). They hand out information leaflets, explain that books and classes are free, and welfare will pay for transportation and baby-sitters, if necessary. The recruiters return most days with the names of six or eight people interested in the program.

Local educational institutions

Houston Community College (HCC) offers courses in more than 100 occupational and technical fields (see Narum). The courses offered include GED preparation, English as a second language, and basic skills improvement. HCC works with more than 260 companies in providing cooperative, on-the-job training for students. HCC will either place an instructor on the job site or have the workers enroll at HCC to upgrade their job skills.

United Mailing Inc., a mailing and data-processing firm in Chanhassen, Minnesota, offers literacy training classes to its employees through a local program called Directions (see Szabo). The program, funded through a Department of Education grant and administered by a local community college, offers an experienced instructor for onsite training of workers in reading, language skills and problem solving. The instructor works on language skills needed to perform specific jobs. Ultimately, the primary objective of the program is to make employees more skilled so that they can be more productive.

In 1989, Houston-based Cooper Industries announced that it would give $375,000 over three years to 10 vocational-technical schools in cities where it has manufacturing facilities (see Narum). Each school would receive $10,000 a year, for each of the three years, to use at its own discretion. At the end of each year, the school that made the best use of its money would receive an additional $25,000. If the program is successful, there are plans to expand it to include other cities.

Caldwell Community College in Hudson, North Carolina received $90,697 from the Appalachian Regional Commission to set up basic skills programs at eight Broyhill Furniture sites (see BCEL). These programs will upgrade the reading and math skills of 150 employees annually. The instruction will be individualized and computer-based.

Tuition assistance/overtime pay

In 1989, Motorola modified its policy of paying 50 percent of continuing education costs for its employees. Under the new guidelines, Motorola will provide 100 percent reimbursement for continuing education expenses, providing quite an incentive for employees (see Booker).

John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland has found that paying employees to attend classes is an effective incentive (see Eubanks). Johns Hopkins is one of four hospitals participating in a pilot program sponsored by the Department of Labor designed to increase the literacy of Baltimore's low-skilled residents. The employees are paid for time spent in class a few hours a day, two or three times per week.

Texas Instruments reimburses the tuition of 4,000-5,000 employees every semester (see Goddard). Some of these workers take very basic learning classes to improve their skills.

Union involvement

Since 1982, the United Auto Workers (UAW), in conjunction with Ford and General Motors (GM), has offered afterhours employee education courses to workers. Four training projects came out of the joint funding process created by the 1982 National GM/UAW Bargaining Agreement: new technology training for skilled trade workers, an employee development program, a statistical process control orientation program and employee participation group training (see Norman). These projects were aimed at the entire projected employment of the factory, reflecting a new attitude and long-term commitment to a new working relationship. In 1985, after seeing the benefits, Chrysler joined the project (see Ross).

The program includes computer-assisted instruction in math, reading and computer basics. Because the program has proved to be so popular, Ford and the UAW extended it to spouses of workers (see Dreyfuss).

The classes are offered in the plant and can be scheduled before and after shifts. To provide individual instruction, classes are kept small. They meet 90 minutes at a time, twice a week for 10 weeks. Classes begin at various times throughout the day, the first at 5 a.m., the last at 8 p.m.

In Ford's Ypsilanti, Michigan reading program, once the intial classroom session is completed, up to 60 percent of the students re-enroll for more advanced work (see Ross). In all cases, enrollment is voluntary.

The United Steelworkers of America (USA) operate more than 50 centers offering comprehensive training (see BCEL). In 1987, nearly 27,000 people were enrolled in USA training programs.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) negotiated a contract with AT&T in 1986 that furnishes $6-$7 million annually for education and training (see BCEL). By 1987, the jointly governed program was operational in 60 locations throughout the U.S. with an enrollment of over 1,000, 10 percent of whom were studying basic skills.

Smaller unions can band together to achieve what would be difficult or impossible to attain alone. One such group is the Consortium for Worker Literacy, a group of eight unions in New York City. Members of the group are the Teamsters Joint Council 16, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the United Auto Workers District Council 65, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees District 1707, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, United Auto Workers Local 259, the Health and Hospital Workers Union District Council 1199, and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. The membership in these unions varies from 4,000 to 150,000. The consortium estimates that the number of its combined workers and their family members in need of literacy skills is at least 450,000 people (see BCEL). Due to the large number of people needing basic skills training, the Consortium asked for and received $1.5 million the first year and $2 million the second year from the State Department of Education, the Municipal Assistance Corp. and the New York City Board of Education.

The program was launched in 1985 with two basic ideas. The first was the importance of providing education to help workers maintain their current jobs or retrain for new ones before job loss - prevention rather than reaction. The second was that all curricula should be built around the occupational themes and life experiences of the various union memberships. Therefore, the Consortium was able to tailor programs that would best suit the unions' members.


The Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) was passed by Congress in April of 1982, according to the federal government's Small Business Administration. Instead of training workers for jobs that may not exist, JTPA gets business, labor and educators to work together on state and local councils. The goal is that the training workers receive will reflect the needs of employers, and they will be matched with existing job openings.

The local private industry councils operate in over 600 locations. How to spend the more than $1 billion that is allocated to assist workers is decided at the local level.

The Workplace Literacy Partnership Act (WLPA), passed in 1988, allows the Department of Education to allocate federal money to businesses and educational institutions that form partnerships to provide basic education in the workplace, according to Oberle. Each year, funds are allocated to proposed programs based on demonstrated need, plan of action, program evaluation plan, qualifications of the principals involved, and the commitment of the partners. Fifty percent of the awards provided in its first year were for English as a second language programs.

Many businesses are establishing worker training or retraining as one of their highest priorities. The reason is clear. All employees and employers will benefit from basic skills training, either directly or indirectly.

In order to perform the job safely and efficiently, employees must be able to read and comprehend on a much higher level than employees in the past. Businesses must offer basic skills training to their employees to remain competitive and successful in today's changing environment. By offering some of the programs discussed here, businesses can offer their employees an opportunity to acquire necessary skills for the workplace of the future while providing a means to become more able to function in the workplace of today.

For futher reading

Booker, Ellis. "Company School Days."

Computerworld, January 15, 1990. Business Council for Effective Literacy, October

1987. Davis, Nancy Harvey and Pam Fitzgerald. "Literacy

Clearinghouse." Library Journal, November

15, 1990. Dreyfuss, Joel. "The Three R's on the Shop Floor."

Fortune, Education 1990. Eubanks, Paula. "Literacy Crisis Threatens Hospital

Workforce." Hospitals, January 20, 1990. Fusco, Mary Ann Castronovo. "Employment Relations

Programs." Employment Relations Today,

Spring 1989. Goddard, Robert W. "The Crisis in Workplace

Literacy." Personnel Journal, December 1987. Lee, Chris. "Basic Training in the Corporate

Schoolhouse." Training, April 1988. Narum, Beverly. "Area Employers Send Workers

Back to School." The Houston Post, March 7,

1990. Norman, L. Jay. "Mastering the Basics." Personnel

Administrator, September 1988. Oberle, Joseph. "Teaching English as a Second

Language." Training, April 1990. Petrini, Catherine M. "Literacy Programs Make the

News." Training & Development Journal, February

1991. Reynolds, Brian A. and Wendy A. Reynolds. "The

Siskiyou County READ Project: A Success

Story in Rural Adult Literacy." Library Journal,

November 15, 1988. Ross, Irwin. "Corporations Take Aim at Illiteracy."

Fortune, September 29, 1986. Small Business Administration (SBA). "Workplace

Literacy." SBA Legislative Conference Proceedings,

Fall 1989. Szabo, Joan C. "Learning at Work." Nation's

Business, February 1990. Weinstein, Jeff, "Literacy Problems Threaten Revenues,"

Restaurants & Institutions, September


Susan Z. Washburn is a graduate assistant at the Stephen F. Austin State University. Geralyn McClure Franklin, Ph.D. is an associate professor of management at the same school.
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Author:Washburn, Susan Z.; Franklin, Geralyn McClure
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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