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Training can solve staff literacy issues

BRIAN RICHARDSON
Last updated 13:24 07/04/2014

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OPINION: In this day and age it is becoming imperative that employees know how to read, write and calculate.

We recently had a client who had a school leaver who had come through the school system not knowing how to read properly or do basic math.

This is a very real problem for employees, employers and society. People who can't read, write or do basic calculations are at a major disadvantage and can become a great cost to society.

In the case of the recent employer (a service station), the employee was required to sell petrol and other goods and to process those sales. This meant they had to be able to recognise (read) what they were selling, and to be able to calculate the price and to make change.

When the employer hired the employee, they had wrongly assumed the employee knew how to read, write, undertake basic calculations and operate a till.

This situation is happening more and more often in workplaces around the country.

For an employer, it is important that they identify what skills an employee needs to bring to the workplace. When deciding whether to hire them or not, they need to actually test the potential employee to see if they do in fact possess the skills needed for the job (or what skills they claim to have).

I have a theory that if you can test for it (a skill), then test for it during the assessment process. Don't leave it till the employee is hired to find out whether they can read etc.

What does an employer do if they hire someone who cannot read or they have someone who they have employed for a long time and who now needs to be up-skilled in their reading or math skills to do the job that has evolved over time?

There is the harsh situation whereby the employer identifies the performance level required, i.e. the employee must be able to read instructions. If they can't, they are performance managed out of employment for failing to meet the required performance level.

That is not good practice, and may actually run counter to the employer's obligations to provide appropriate training to bring the employee up to spec. A dismissal in this case could lead to a successful personal grievance against the employer.

What the employer can do, but only with the agreed participation of the employee, is to enter into a training regime.

There are now specific organisations such as Southern Adult Literacy here in Southland, and other similar organisations under the Literacy Aotearoa brand throughout the country which can put together a training regime that will help employees master their literacy and math skills.

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These organisations need the active "buy-in" of both the employer and the employee.

What can happen is that the employee can be provided with group work and also one-on-one training by qualified trainers. The training can be tailored and can be linked with another background issue such as English for speakers of another language.

Once an employer has employed someone with these acknowledged difficulties, it is often cheaper to provide the training, especially if in all other respects they are excellent workers (as most are), than it is to dismiss them and hire someone else.

Entering an agreed training regime also sends an excellent message to other employees that the employer is trying to help the staff achieve.

When entering a training contract with an employee, it is very important that the employee's participation and application are acknowledged and rewarded. This means that the employee needs to be the subject of regular reviews and that their accomplishments are acknowledged personally and privately (if they wish to have the matter treated privately) or, as many successful employees want after they have successfully completed the training, with public recognition within the firm.

If an employer sees that an employee maybe struggling with the day to day requirements of the job and they are making mistakes, think outside the square - they may be struggling because they can't cope with the academic demands of the job and are actually crying out for help.

A good employer will help the committed employee and all that will result will be (that hackneyed old phrase) a win- win situation.

* Brian Richardson is a human resources adviser at Preston Russell Law. Email: brian.richardson@prlaw.co.nz.

- The Southland Times

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