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What impact do basic skills levels in the workforce have on employers?

Brian Creese (pictured), Jenny Litster and David Mallows are from UCL Institute of Education

For those that might have missed it, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) have just published a report on new research about the impact of poor literacy and numeracy on employers.

The report is based on a large-scale telephone survey of employers conducted by Ipsos MORI and in-depth case studies conducted by NRDC (UCL Institute of Education). The report aims to address the lack of evidence on the prevalence of poor basic skills in the workplace and its impact, as well as the costs and benefits associated with public-funded basic skills training.

The survey found that one in eight (12%) workplaces in England report a literacy and/or numeracy gap whereby at least one member of staff is unable to perform certain literacy or numeracy tasks to the level required in their day-to-day job. However, we suggest that employers may underestimate the literacy and numeracy shortcomings of their workforce. During interviews with managers it was common for employers to begin by asserting that their employees had no particular basic skills deficits, only for issues to emerge during interviews.

In general we found that often work processes were designed to compensate for literacy and numeracy deficits of employees. Weaknesses in employee skills can be masked by the use of ICT interventions, such as software packages for accounts management, or templates for written correspondence. We also found numerous examples of peer support being used to mask literacy or numeracy difficulties, a precarious strategy, particularly for small businesses.

The supply of adult literacy and numeracy training should be more closely aligned with the demands of the workplace. The survey finds that demand for adult skills training and education is low, with little motivation for either employer or employee to engage formal learning to improve literacy or numeracy levels. Where work processes are designed to compensate for, or mask, literacy and numeracy deficits among employees, this may contribute to skills decline and poor take up of training opportunities by reducing the demands on employees’ skills and their motivation to improve them.

There was little evidence that employers were interested in helping their employees to gain a formal qualification, except where that qualification was deemed to have an external currency. Many employers felt that scaffolding of literacy and numeracy tasks and informal skills development through engagement with peers was a more appropriate (and cost-effective) solution.

This report provides evidence of the need for researchers, policy makers and others to focus their attention on the demand-side of skills. Understanding how literacy and numeracy are used, and learnt, in the workplace is a necessary first step in bringing about widespread improvements in workplace performance.

Brian Creese (pictured), Jenny Litster and David Mallows are from UCL Institute of Education

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