OTTAWA, Ont. - Workplace communication has become ever more immediate and technical, but the old fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic have not quite fallen by the wayside. It's just that th...
OTTAWA, Ont. –Workplace communication has become ever more immediate and technical, but the old fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic have not quite fallen by the wayside. It’s just that the bar has been raised.
According to the Canadian Council of Learning, nearly half of Canadian adults don’t possess enough literacy skills to understand a public bus schedule, read directions on a pill bottle or keep up with technological advances in the workplace.
To mark International Literacy Day on Sept. 8 of this year, the Council released an interactive map showing literacy rates across 52,000 cities, towns and communities across Canada.
Some 48% of Canadians aged 16 and older only possess a level ‘2’ or lower in literacy, which means that they have the skills to “deal only with simple, clear material involving uncomplicated tasks.” (A level ‘3’ is considered the “minimum threshold for coping with the demands of the global knowledge-based economy,” said the Council).
Low literacy levels are a huge threat to productivity and economic performance, especially if you take the following Statistics Canada factoid into consideration: each 1% increase in the average rate of literacy and numeracy skills permanently raises a country’s GDP per capita by 1.5%.
So are businesses and educators getting the message?
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada said that over the past year alone, close to 400,000 copies of the federal government’s Literacy and Essential Skills toolkit, which is divided into Assessment, Learning, and Training Supports, have been ordered or downloaded.
“Many of these tools have only recently been published and are already receiving very positive feedback. Employers and workplace practitioners have communicated that they recognize the importance of literacy and essential skills and the need to increase employees’ skill levels. Research has also shown that they would be more likely to address the development of literacy and essential skills if they had access to free, generic and user-friendly tools, learning models and supports,” HRSDC told Truck West.
Even as a large percentage of the Canadian public grapples with everyday literacy issues, employers are facing multiple staffing challenges: clarifying and classifying the elements that make up “essential skills,” recruiting from an ever-shrinking workforce as the Canadian population ages, and identifying strategies to hire and train newcomers to the country -immigrants who will make up the bulk of Canada’s workforce in the coming decades.
But according to a September 2009 report by TD Economics, immigrants to Canada are still not being utilized to their full potential, costing the economy billions of dollars every year.
The culprit? Poor language and literacy skills, with about six in 10 newcomers possessing less than the desired level of literacy.
In the transportation industry, given the challenges of recruitment and retention, how pervasive is the literacy issue? It depends on how you define it, noted Linda Gauthier, executive director of the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council.
“A lot of people define literacy as reading, writing and document use. But many will include computer skills,” she said. In the last two years, Gauthier told Truck West, screening for reading, writing and basic math skills has become increasingly important.
The CTHRC identified 13 essential skills a truck driver needs, and the top three require proficiency in language: reading text, using documents (interpreting road maps, bills of lading, etc.), and writing.
“A number of years ago people could develop coping skills but that is more difficult now given the onboard electronic equipment and the amount of paperwork and documentation. It’s not sufficient to say that people are coming out of school with certification, but to show that people have document use skills, and when it comes to those already in the workforce the responsibility falls on the employer,” said Gauthier.
Back in 2003 the CTHRC published an essential skills needs assessment for the trucking industry.
“We identified that the larger companies were looking at ways to assess their employees. That report led us to develop the TOWES test, and to do more research to see what the uptake and the benefits would be.”
TOWES (the Test of Workplace Essential Skills) has been in use for several years in a number of provinces, and is used as a screening process for people coming into entry-level truck driver training programs. The program focuses on skills that people may have used but forgotten (how to find things within the material they are scanning, for example).
Gauthier said uptake for TOWES was initially slow, but now industry is paying more attention.
“We’ve also developed some training modules that would help when you put someone through the assessment and you’ve found them lacking in some of the skills. The material was developed using trucking workplace materials so that they can be easily integrated,” she said.
A few years ago, CTHRC also undertook a literacy-related project with the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (CPPI).
“We looked at essential skills as measures of safety performance, and could essential skills impact safety with petroleum haulers? The results indicated that document use, which is huge in the petroleum industry, was weak on the part of drivers and trainers. Even the trainers didn’t have the document use skills required. The report also indicated that there was the potential for a higher incidence of accidents in that field when the skill level of the drivers was not high enough,” said Gauthier.
John Skowronski, director of environmental affairs for the CPPI, told Truck West that as a result of the project, the CPPI has come up with a rating process, and tried to look at the root causes of safety incidences to see if they could be tied back to literacy.
“One of the elements we found was that the ability to interpret forms was a cause in some (safety-related) incidences. The issue was not so much understanding the forms but the different mix of forms suppliers would use. Was there some way for us to reduce that variability by using a standard form among suppliers?”
“We haven’t come up with any changes but we do have a recommendation to come up with a standard bill-of-lading. That’s the primary output for us. There are regulatory requirements that are simple to meet, (ie. emergency response info). The second requirement is that individual suppliers have corporate requirements and for them (especially the large international firms) it makes sense to work with one system of documentation that works well for them but may not be compatible with another’s system,” he said.
The CTHRC plans to develop generic ESL-specific training for companies that won’t be able to afford it in-house. English as a Second Language (ESL) skills are not necessarily tied to basic literacy skills, but English (or French) language ability is nevertheless important in determining essential skills, especially as more and more immigrants come from countries where neither French nor English is widely spoken or taught.
“You don’t equate literacy with schooling, because literacy has to do with techniques not necessarily taught in school. With ESL, although there are benchmarking tests, they test on social knowledge of English and not workplace knowledge. So carriers that have brought foreign-trained workers into the country find themselves training the foreign trained workers on trucking related terminology,” said Gauthier.
“We do still come across some issues and more specifically with candidates for whom English is a second language. We utilize several tools to assess this and specifically some knowledge verification testing on transportation knowledge in which literacy/numeracy issues become very obvious in the testing,” said Tanya Theroux, driver services manager, Challenger Motor Freight.
son Transport has established a set of in-house assessment tools used to hire from abroad and to train new hires to a certain level of English language comprehension, as well as knowledge about the trucking industry.
“There’s no question that the literacy and numeracy requirements have changed,” said David Klassen, manager, driver development at Bison, citing satellite communications, and its series of abbreviations and acronyms as an issue that can be challenging to those dealing with language comprehension issues.
Jennifer Knauf, driver services program development coordinator at Bison, said that for nominee drivers in the process of coming to Canada there is a strong focus on assessment before they are cleared.
“During the interview we ask how is their vocabulary? Can they communicate on the phone, and in orientation? Based on that we recommend either that they continue training in the home country before coming here, or have a second assessment done at the (International English Language Training) school facility to make sure they can come over right away. We’re now putting a different focus on the Customs part, to make sure that when they get to the US border they can answer questions,” she said.
“One of the things we put together, spurred on by our work with nominee drivers, is an online dictionary of trucking terms. Anyone is able to go online to access a list of jargon relevant to the industry. We created this dictionary and we expand on it as we go,” said Klassen.
For in-house face-to-face interviews, Bison uses a tool called the Bison T Workplace English Communications Assessment. It was developed by the Manitoba Department of Labour Workplace Training branch, and is based on trucking-related text and has a speaking, reading and writing part.
“As a reference tool we use the NOC (national occupational code) standards for professional driver. We find that is a very useful tool for determining skills sets for competency. We were also involved in developing customized skills sets for Bison drivers.”
“A couple of years ago we had a much higher incidence of people who really struggled with English -we can attest to this getting much better. Some of the challenges are no longer there. We have to learn a lot about how we need to recruit and assess people -this is where governments have a very important role in helping industry,” said Klassen.
The Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council has also been doing a lot of work this year around literacy and essential skills as part of its work on drafting sector-related occupational standards.
“One of the things we used as a guiding document was the human resources study of the supply chain completed by the predecessor to the Council. It was a research report that identified 26 HR issues brought up by employers/employees in the supply chain,” said Kevin Maynard, executive director, Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council.
One of the intertwining themes, said Maynard, was the development of skills and competencies “because it affects the professional attributes of individuals in the supply chain, it affects the ability of the learning system providers to meet the needs of the community in general, and it impacts on the ability of individuals to plan how they’re going to develop themselves,” he said.
In many cases, noted Maynard, employers aren’t aware of essential skills. They may be aware of skills that are related to jobs but they may not be aware of essential skills used as tools.
“If you can identify the essential skills required you can use them as pre-screening for recruitment, you can use them for developing training plans for individual employees, you can even use an occupational standard for developing training and learning programs for an individual in a particular job. So we’ve been working with a number of employers now to do that,” he said.
Beverly Myers, program manager with the Supply Chain Sector Council, said educational institutions are getting more familiar with essential skills requirements in the wake of job losses and retraining, and also because of immigration.
“A lot of these individuals have transferable skills from where they come from, but they might not have the language proficiencies they might need. From a college perspective I know they’re looking at some of that right now. They’re trying to work to make sure they’re giving the individuals coming into the programs the ability to jump into a role and hit the ground running. Employers need people to be able to come in and use an Excel spreadsheet, to read and communicate with other individuals, to be able to understand how business structures work, and to do whatever the task is they were hired for, so they are not spending time trying to engage them and going through literacy issues that may be coming up. The colleges in return are embedding essential skills in a lot of their learning outcomes for individuals who are internationally trained,” said Myers.
In supply chain management, she said, the ability to speak to many different levels of an organization, from CEOs to people on the dock floor, is extremely important.
“In supply chain, a lot of the jobs now are so complex from a computer perspective, they have these very complex warehouse management systems, and different put-away and removal strategies. It’s becoming more and more obvious that they need people who can do basic math, reading, and who can understand from a safety perspective as well, because if they’re not able to do more than just move things from Point A to Point B, they’ll have some serious hazards within the organization,” said Myers.
“They’re having to learn more and more things outside their area of expertise, and there’s a lot of responsibility for people in the areas of purchasing,” she added.
While a number of government programs are aimed at improving literacy levels among newcomers to prepare them for the workforce, still more resources should be allocated toward evaluating the effectiveness of these programs, said Craig Alexander, senior vice-president and deputy chief economist, TD Bank Financial Group, and the author of the TD Economics report Literacy Matters: Helping Newcomers Unlock Their Potential.
“Newcomers may also not appreciate how stronger literacy skills can open doors and unlock their potential. The fact is that most individuals with weak literacy skills-immigrants and Canadian-born individuals alike-do not recognize their level of proficiency and the impact that it is having on their lives,” he said.