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Workplace illiteracy

Part 2 of 6


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The Cost of Illiteracy

Again, the precise costs of workforce illiteracy in America are difficult to identify. Most estimates of direct costs due to injuries, mistakes, lost opportunities, and lowered pro­ductivity fall in the neighborhood of 20 to 50 billion dollars annually. Other reports and studies suggest that the direct costs represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the real costs, which include formal and informal training, welfare programs, crime, and lost earnings and taxes from unemployed or underemployed persons.

Another concern is the higher marginal cost associated with advanced training due to functional illiteracy. Wil­liam Wiggenhorn, Director of Training at Motorola, has estimated that it costs two hundred dollars to train a worker in the U.S. in statistical process control versus 47 cents in Japan. The difference is that Japanese workers are given a book to read, while American workers must first be taught to read. (Boyett and Conn, p. 277)
Another American business leader, David Kearns of Xerox, makes a dramatic statement about the cost of illiteracy. "If current demographic and economic trends continue, Ameri­can business will have to hire a million new workers a year who can't read, write, or count. Teaching them how, and absorbing the lost productivity while they're learning, will cost industry $25 billion a year for as long as it takes."

The obvious conclusion, once again, is that the cost of func­tional illiteracy in the American work force is significant.

Literacy Today—Why All the Fuss?

Illiteracy has always been present to a large degree in the American workplace. So why, then, has it become such a major concern today? Many changes in the structure of organizations and the nature of modern work have com­bined to "expose" functional illiteracy, and literacy has become a crusade at the highest levels of government.

As a result of increased global competition, American companies have had to re-evaluate traditional organiza­tional structures. Gone are the days of the cumbersome bureaucracy with layer after layer of managers and super­visors. Companies now strive to be "lean and mean," with only a few layers between the boardroom and the shop floor. As a result, there are fewer supervisors, who often served as "translators" for those employees who had difficulty reading written or numerical material. After the supervi­sor translated the information into spoken English (or Spanish or Vietnamese), the workers, who were mostly dedicated and motivated people, carried them out. In the days when work was less complex and technical, workers could survive, and even thrive, by being dedicated, reliable, and ambitious, even if illiterate. Learning how to perform jobs involved on-the-job training, where workers were shown how to do something, and they were verbally told what to do each day to meet quotas and schedules. Workers now must learn by reading and understanding written material, which is often written at a level that is hard for many literate people to understand. In many new work environments, schedules and instructions are presented on computer screens or printouts, not verbally, making it difficult for functionally illiterate people to compensate. What used to be the middle level jobs are now often at the lowest level. Recently the American Electronics Association recognized the need for defining the skills required for jobs in their industry and developed a set of voluntary standards to help guide the assessment and education of workers.
Finally, there has been a renewed emphasis on adult literacy as an item on the social agenda. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations targeted literacy as a high prior­ity, providing funds and motivation for companies to attack the problem, with the National Literacy Act of 1991 being a key piece of legislation. Most companies today recognize the problem, at least from an altruistic perspective, yet are unwilling or unable to provide the necessary funds and mechanisms to create viable solutions. They haven't yet made the connection between illiteracy and poor perfor­mance in a practical sense.

Causes of Functional Illiteracy

Many causes exist for the high levels of illiteracy in the workplace. Specific reasons given for high levels of illit­eracy include:
• High school dropout rates
• The "factory model" of education, where all students are treated the same
• Minimal requirements for passing students to the next grade
• Learning disabilities
• High percentage of immigrant population
• Literacy not an identified requirement for hiring

Many people point to a failure in public education in general, but it is meaningless to try to assess blame for the situation. The problem exists, and recognizing the causes may lead to workable plans for reducing their impact in the future. It is also important to recognize that people who are functionally illiterate are not bad people. For the most part, they are decent, hard working, and capable individu­als who, for whatever reason, did not acquire some of the vital basic skills. No one feels worse about illiteracy than those who are illiterate. It is a source of low self-esteem, embarrassment, and loss of dignity, and they will do almost anything to keep from being discovered. Deep down, most have a burning desire to change—they just don't quite know how.

To be Continued

For balance of this article, click on the below link:
Lean Manufacturing Articles and go to Series 02


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