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You Read It Here: Literacy Pays at the Workplace

July 22, 1994|From Reuters

Employees who take company literacy classes to improve their reading and writing skills can expect to fatten their paychecks anywhere from 10% to 17%, a workplace authority says.

"You can expect to have increased wages and more job security because you will be more productive and a more valued employee," said Kevin Hollenbeck, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute For Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich.

For example, a factory worker earning $6 on an assembly line likely would get a pay boost to $7 an hour after completing literacy instruction.

Unfortunately, said Miriam Ben-Nathan, literacy spokeswoman for The Olsten Corp., of Westbury, N.Y., "People are afraid to come forward because they fear their employers will learn about their deficiencies."

Employers, she said, are spending $30 billion to train employees "but not enough of this goes to help people write and communicate effectively."

According to The Olsten Corp., about 29 million adult Americans are considered to be functionally illiterate--only able to read or write at or below a fourth-grade level.

In studying about 250 Michigan companies having fewer than 500 workers each, Hollenbeck found "only 3% to 5% are actively doing something about the training."

Yet 25% to 30% of those employed by these firms "have some sort of basic skills deficiency," he said.

As for firms having fewer than 100 workers, "there are just no workplace programs set up for (basic) education," Hollenbeck said.

"Some companies feel, 'I'm not a big company. We don't have time or personnel to attend a workshop,' " Olsten's Ben-Nathan said. "But these can form a coalition in a particular community to act about workplace literacy."

Some small firms, Hollenbeck said, "are finding they must upgrade the skills of their workers because large corporations are imposing higher quality standards on them as suppliers."

Executives of small firms he spoke with told him that once their employees gained basic literacy skills, productivity would jump by about 10% to 15%.

"They told of seeing evidence of lower scrap (waste) rates and higher quality products coming off their assembly line. Literacy was leading to more flexible workers who could adapt more easily," Hollenbeck said.

The cost to an employer for basic literacy training is about $1,000 per student when workers are educated in classes of 10 to 20, Hollenbeck said. A typical program on average cost employers $14,525.

Among the benefits of literacy training:

* After spending $40,000, management at a paperboard container firm in Kalamazoo found "reduced error rates" by workers who also experienced "great improvements in self- confidence and self-esteem."

* A Kalamazoo furniture-maker found "significant improvement in company loyalty and morale," error rate reduction and heightened ability to use new technologies.

* One Grand Rapids, Mich., furniture-maker did not see much skills improvement but said employee attitudes improved. Workers also were no longer "scared to admit" illiteracy.

* A Grand Rapids plastics-maker said employee problem-solving ability jumped 41% after the courses. Employees were better able to work as teams and produce quality work more efficiently.

* A suburban Detroit plastics-maker noted "less turnover and more worker promotions."

* At a Flint, Mich., plastics-maker, supervisors say workers "are more open and more inclined to ask questions about their work."

* A payroll clerk noted time card errors dropped and supervisors said employees "seem better able to handle new technology."

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