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Illiteracy in the workplace.

Illeteracy in the Workplace

Illiteracy in the US workplace is an impending national disaster with international implications. It is costing the US economy billions in lost productivity and waste. It is also making it difficult for United States manufacturers and processors to compete in world markets.

Add the higher literacy in the workplaces of western Europe and the world's highest literacy in the workplace of Japan, and you have a competitive disadvantage that the United States is hard-pressed to overcome.

Hardest hit are the small business owners who have to rely on recent immigrants whose illiteracy is compounded by their difficulty in speaking or understanding English.

A recent conference on illiteracy in the workplace featured the story of a small metal-finishing shop that lost US $8,000 when a worker spoiled an airplane part because he couldn't read English well enough. It could have been worse if the defect had not been caught before it caused an air disaster.

A small nursery lost thousands of dollars in sales because a seasonal employee could not read the instructions on assembling simple machinery.

Here is the situation in numbers, according to the Business Council for Effective Literacy, a foundation organized to encourage involvement of business in promoting adult literacy:

More than 27 million Americans over age 17 are functionally illiterate. They can't read or write well enough to meet the basic needs of everyday life and work.

More than 72 million Americans are either functional or marginal illiterates. They cannot contribute to America's need to reverse the US trade imbalance. Neither do they have large enough discretionary incomes to contribute materially to the US economy as consumers.

Three-fourths of America's unemployed have serious problems with basic reading, thus reducing the labor pool.

One in eight workers is estimated to read at no higher than fourth grade level; one in five reads only to the eighth grade.

Millions of adults who cannot qualify for work in the US service and technological economy represent a major loss of potential customers as well as employees. They also are a drain on workers, whose tax dollars go, in part, to support the unemployed in government assistance.

The domestic economy is deprived further of millions of employed persons who are not promotable despite their intuitive abilities, because they lack the skills to communicate and respond.

Add increased production costs caused by accidents and absenteeism, costly errors, low product reliability and lost management time in providing close supervision, and you have a problem that cuts deeply into profits.

And, finally, all programs now in effect to eradicate illiteracy in the workplace are making only a single-digit-percent dent in the problem.

Women earn less,

hold lower jobs in media

Women who work in the media have a long way to go before reaching parity with men, both in terms of their paychecks and the number of management positions they hold, according to The Professional Communicator, the US national publication of Women in Communications, Inc.

On the US' largest daily newspapers, only six percent of publishers and fewer than 14 percent of directing editors are women, according to research findings reported in the magazine. And women who have reached the management level on newspapers earn significantly less than their male counterparts with the same years of service, a pay gap that widens over the course of a career.

In broadcasting, women number six percent of general managers, vice presidents or presidents, and only a small fraction of television network movies and programs are directed by women.

Companies prefer title

'Corporate communications'

over 'PR'

"Corporate communications" is used more often than "public relations," according to the 1989 O'Dwyer's Directory of Corporate Communications.

Among the Fortune 500 companies listed in the directory, 120 companies have corporate communications departments and 90 have public relations departments. More than 20 other terms are used, including: "corporate relations," "publicity and communications," "corporate information" and "public affairs."

About 60 of the Fortune 500 companies listed in the directory have no formal communication departments.

New Programs Must Be Developed

The solution is on the newsstands that sell daily newspapers and return those unsold. The solution also is in the homes of newspaper subscribers where back issues pile up until they are tossed out.

The solution is in the nation's millions of retirees who are products of a more disciplined school and home environment, whose early lives were not distracted by television and who have improved their reading skills and knowledge through years of upward mobility.

The Solution

A solution which communication and PR pros can help effect involves collecting newspapers and taking them into the workplace. Then, recruiting volunteers among the company's retirees and their families to work with functional and marginal illiterates to improve their reading skills using the newspapers as texts.

At the same time they are improving their reading skills, student-workers will be getting an economic education and learning about the communities in which they live and work.

The solution is based on these three assumptions:

* Non-readers and low-skilled readers want to read. They would make eager students. It is a great source of embarrassment to them to be functionally or marginally illiterate. They want to move up to better positions and to higher pay for which only improved reading skills and knowledge can qualify them.

* They would be willing to remain after work to learn what they should have learned in school.

* Their families would be willing to join them in the workplace to improve the entire family's skills to qualify for work or higher-paying jobs.

Traditionally, children have been taught to read with "Dick and Jane" readers. This dulls the minds of children and demeans the adults. Newspapers have no such stigma.

Newspaper news stories and features are normally written to reach all educational levels from primary to college. They are written primarily with one- and two-syllable words for maximum understanding.

News stories and features are told from the personal experiences of real individuals and groups. They are crafted carefully with direct quotes to increase human interest. This is what readers and non-readers alike are most interested in. There is built-in interest beyond improving reading skills and comprehension.

While improving reading skills, students will acquire new knowledge that can start them thinking about the world around them and how they fit.

Even beginning readers will discover important issues, since some comic strips now discuss them in simple, monosyllabic language.

Beginners also can learn about important developments merely by reading the abbreviated words of the headlines and captions under editorial cartoons.

For marginal readers, there are news briefs and lead paragraphs on longer stories. Columnists are adept at writing in a conversational, anecdotal style that can make learning to read comfortable.

Public Relations, Communication Can Lead

the Way

The public relations implications go beyond economic returns. Working with the community media to promote newspapers can help the company's media relations.

It will focus community attention on the company's corporate citizenship. It will make news for the company as progress in achieving the program's goals are measured and reported.

With the renewed confidence gained from their newly acquired reading and thinking skills, employees can move into the community as active citizens, giving the company greater visibility.

The company also profits by supplementing the daily newspaper with company media. While learning to read, employees and their families will learn about their company. They may learn, many for the first time, their responsibilities and benefits as employees.

The company need not limit classes to employees and families. It can invite community residents not employed by the company to become students and volunteer tutors. This can only add to the company's reputation as socially responsible and create new consumers for its products and services. It would also enable the company to investigate good prospects for employment.

Opening up reading classes to the community could create a new army of volunteers to represent and support the company's cause.

To its own employees, the company can offer the carrot of upward movement, if their communication skills and knowledge improve significantly and jobs are available.

The first step is company-sponsored reading classes conducted after working hours on the premises for functional and marginal illiterates. Teachers would come primarily from the company's retirees and their families.

The second step would be rapid reading and improved comprehension classes for accomplished readers in the organization. Teachers for these classes would have to be reading education professionals.

Consultants also may be needed to conduct the seminars and discussions that could lead to upwardly mobile employees of the company becoming the solution. These could be the social studies and economics teachers in the local high schools and community colleges.

For optimal efficiency, consultants could be hired to help train the volunteers and show them how to develop lesson plans, motivate their students, measure and recognize their progress. They could come from the nearest university as well.

The third step would be to open these classes to the community to help build support for the company's causes, products and services.

So far, we have discussed solutions in terms of improving reading skills and information through company-sponsored reading programs. Using daily newspapers as texts could, at the same time, create thinking adults who can become useful citizens of a democracy and active in their respective communities. But where does writing fit?

Exercises in writing derive naturally from reading. Students could be asked to comment on their reading orally and in writing. They could be invited to share their comments with others and be recognized for creative comments. This beats discussing the adventures of "Dick and Jane."

Some of these discussions could be reported in the company's media, oped pages of the community newspaper, letters to the editor.

The company could offer prizes for the best comments, and reprint them for further distribution as position papers. They would make excellent inserts into company speeches.

The community media would recognize the company's and individual accomplishments.

Many of the company's retirees, recruited as tutors, are already community volunteers in many causes. For them, this could be a more attractive cause. It would welcome them back into the workplace where they would feel they once again belonged.

For retirees who have not yet found their place in service, this could lead to a more productive retirement.

For the local media, this could mean more sales and a better future in creating a reading public out of non-readers. They are sure to follow the progress of the company's program and report the successes.

The problem, if not solved completely, will at least not grow worse. And productivity should improve because of workers with more skills, new confidence, higher morale and gratitude for what their companies have done for them.

The first few companies to inaugurate this program would get national attention from the media and the nation's leaders.

The second level of innovators would get regional attention. All would get community notice.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on literacy action plans
Author:Walter, Albert
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1989
Previous Article:Publishing in-house: too much to handle?
Next Article:Back to school.

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