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Increased demand for educated workers addressed by workplace literacy programs.

Increased demand for educated workers addressed by workplace literacy programs

Pinning down the actual cost of illiteracy in the workplace involves a journey through a labyrinth of statistics and surveys.

The reality is straightforward, though. Workers need to be educated. The days of finding a highpaying job with a minimum amount of education are fading quickly in Northern Ontario.

To be a miner in Northern Ontario, for example, a college certificate is needed. It's the same story in the paper mills.

"To become a paper-maker, you need a higher level of education (today)," says Sam Saumur, program co-ordinator of the northwestern Ontario BEST (basic education for skills training) program.

"You can't learn through experience any more," he says, adding that the process is the same, but the technology has changed. For example, manuals are required to repair broken equipment.

The following conclusions are drawn from the 1987 Canadian Business Task Force on Literacy report.

- Between $4.15 billion and $18 billion is lost annually because of illiteracy.

- About $2.5 billion of that is attributed to reduced productivity and another $1.6 billion results from industrial accidents caused by illiteracy.

- There are additional costs associated with poor product quality, excessive supervisory time, poor morale, lack of training and poor promotability.


For Northern Ontario employers, the problem is that about 18.2 per cent of all Northern Ontario residents have not completed a Grade 9 education, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education.

Statistics such as this make Audrey Anderson wince.

However, the co-ordinator of the Northern Ontario literacy branch of the Ministry of Education doesn't like looking at literacy strictly from a business point of view. Educators blame workplace conditions for workplace woes, not for illiterate employees.

Literacy has very little to do with "ABCs, and everything to do with self-confidence and if people are motivated to learn," she says.

Still, companies have much to gain from having their employees take some sort of training or upgrading, Anderson says.

Employers want workers who can solve problems and who have excellent communications skills, she says. And 75 per cent of Northern Ontario employers have indicated an interest in some sort of basic upgrading programs for their employees.

Some spin-off effects of upgrading include improved employee loyalty, people better able to cope with changes in the workplace and improved work attitudes.

Determining Northern Ontario's workplace literacy levels and needs, however, is a long process.

Karen Larson, the workplace skills project manager in Atikokan, is currently working in the bush of northwestern Ontario interviewing log haulers and loggers.

Larson runs one of eight ministry-funded literacy in the workplace programs in Northern Ontario. Others have been established in Red Lake, Dryden, North Bay and Elliot Lake.

Larson must assess the needs of the loggers and truckers, and whether they are literate enough to move into other professions.

Yet, when she asked three loggers if they would choose another career, she was told they don't want to leave the Bush.

In Thunder Bay, Sam Saumur of BEST says scheduling courses around shifts is a difficulty companies face when trying to implement some sort of literacy program.

Workers who live in permanent logging camps, such as Canadian Pacific Forest Products', work every night from 6 to 8 p.m.

But at the Kimberley-Clark of Canada Ltd. camp, classes are scheduled for three hours every Saturday morning. Workers there labor 10 to 12 hours per day and do not want to go to school at night.

The "Cadillac of agreements" between workers and their employer would be for classes to be held during paid time, Saumur says.

And this is where employers will have to start opening their wallets.

But Anderson says employers have everything to gain by having a workforce that is learning.

Anderson says illiteracy is seen as a "personal tragedy," and that's why she understands that some northern employers are protective of their employees.

"If we're portraying illiteracy as some sort of disease, then the employer, who may be very community-minded, is naturally going to say, "I can't go up to Joe Blow and say why don't you join this basic literacy course?'"

Anderson clarifies that literacy simply means being able to function comfortably within your environment.

"What's so terrible about that? I think if employers started to realize they don't have to confront people's basic reading and writing skills, they can introduce the subject in other ways."

Yet Anderson does not want to oversell literacy. The problem of illiteracy is not something that can be cured in five or six years. It takes time to gain a Grade 12 diploma.

Employers have a responsibility to not only back up and encourage their employees, but to reinforce the training and accommodate the learners who may not have understood the courses the first time through.

"They (employers) are doing a pretty good job for the most part. I'm not knocking them. I'm just saying I think they need to go further."


Although the strike at Algoma Steel in Sault St. Marie has halted any progress, the company's training department had started looking at a program in basic skills, says Donna Sachetti, Algoma's supervisor of training.

Algoma has decided to become a "total resource centre" for basic skills training. It will pay the tuition fees for any employee who wants to take a job-related course, Sachetti says.
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Title Annotation:Education Report
Author:Young, Laura E.
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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