Getting his first-ever dictionary at a Fulton Hogan graduation ceremony in Wellington in July was the icing on the cake for 39-year-old general hand Bruce Phillips.
Mr Phillips, one of eight employees graduating from a pilot workplace literacy course called Base Course, had never used a dictionary before enrolling in the pilot.
Yet, thanks to company training on reading, writing and maths, Mr Phillips learned to use a dictionary to look up words relating to workplace machinery, develop his vocabulary and improve his spelling.
The night after graduation, he enjoyed taking the time to thumb through his very own dictionary, one of several copies donated by Rotary New Zealand.
“To be honest, I’m quite rapt at having graduated,” Mr Phillips says. “I never really went to school, and this course is giving me a chance to build on my apprenticeship and take the next step in my education.”
The qualified welder from Churton Park, who left school at 15, hopes to use his new-found skills to climb the company ladder and become a machine operator.
Managers say they’re pleased to see the gains filtering through to the workplace. Employees are more confident and health and safety documentation has improved.
Fulton Hogan central region general manager Bill Caradus believes workplace literacy training is vital for any company with employees who missed out on the basics at school, and who are playing catch-up as adults.
“In our industry, like so many, we face a skills shortage,” Mr Caradus says.
“We need people with the basics who can read and comply with the health and safety legislation. But we also need people who can develop their careers and, ultimately, make the move into leadership. Training like this helps us all get up to speed.”
Base Course offered 58 employees in Auckland and Wellington one-on-one and small group tutoring in reading, writing, maths and communication at Fulton Hogan offices for two hours per week.
The six-month course was run by Edvance (in Wellington) and the Manukau Institute of Technology (in Auckland) during company time.
Fulton Hogan data shows it boosted participants’ skills and confidence, and helped some employees move into more senior roles and others gain more work-related qualifications.
Fulton Hogan national learning and development advisor Naomi Woodham says Base Course opened her eyes to the huge potential of literacy training within the workplace.
Now comes the tricky task of taking stock and looking at what to do next, she says.
“The training outcomes have been fantastic and have made a huge difference to participants. We’d definitely like to continue with training. But fitting 40 hours of training in with our frenetic operational schedules has not been without its challenges, and we’re currently analysing what we’ve learned so we can consider our next steps.”
Edvance programme co-ordinator Bridget Farquhar believes companies have to stay focused on literacy training if they want to make a lasting, long-term difference.
“Often a pilot programme gives you a taste of what’s possible. But it’s important not to stop there. It’s important to keep the momentum going. And there are many ways a company can achieve that.”
First and foremost, a company should continue to train and upskill staff, she says. But they can also run or organise workshops to raise awareness of workplace literacy among company managers and relevant staff such as health and safety representatives and foremen.
Improving company documentation to make sure it can be read and understood by the employees is another measure.
Downer, one of the country’s largest infrastructure firms, is doing just that after successfully running two large-scale workplace literacy programmes between 2007 and 2009.
TeamWorks was a leadership programme with literacy learning embedded in it. Way2Work was for frontline workers. It aimed to boost reading, writing, maths and communications skills.
More than 1800 Downer employees across New Zealand took part, making it the single, largest literacy training initiative in the country.
Both programmes were a huge success, according to Downer human resources general manager Chris Meade.
“We’ve seen literacy training help our foremen and supervisors improve health and safety compliance within their teams,” Ms Meade says. “Their maths and writing skills are much improved, which means they more accurately capture and report company data.”
She says literacy training has worked well for frontline workers too.
“Working on the roads has traditionally been seen as a low-skilled employment option for people without a strong academic background. However, in today’s workplace, employees need to be confident and competent in handling sophisticated machinery. They need to follow rigorous safety procedures. And they have to be highly productive.”
This year, Downer started embedding what they learned from their two programmes across the company as a whole.
“We’ve developed a five-year literacy strategy, as part of that effort. And we’ve set up a process of consolidating and embedding change called Nuts and Bolts,” Ms Meade says.
Nuts and Bolts features literacy champions, located in the branches, who are trained to provide ongoing literacy support in the workplace. All literacy champions have completed their National Certificate in Adult Literacy Education (Vocational), a level five NZQA-recognised qualification, and are widely respected within Downer for their skills in the civil infrastructure industry.
“It’s their job to identify skills gaps and work alongside employees to meet those needs. We have a literacy coach, who is part of that process, too. We’re also developing job guides that can be read and understood by everyone within our organisation.
“Finally, we’ve set up a referral system for employees with dyslexia, or needs that might be best addressed from outside the company.”
Overall, she says, Downer has undergone an enormous shift in culture thanks to workplace literacy training.
Manukau Institute of Technology business development manager Tina Rose believes Fulton Hogan and Downer are excellent examples of big Kiwi firms who’re making the most of workplace literacy training.
“But you don’t have to be a large business to do workplace training. Half our clients are small, medium enterprises with fewer than 100 employees,” she says.
The key to successful training is having people within a business who are committed to making it work, and providers who can come up with workable solutions that suit a business’ needs,” Ms Rose says
“Sometimes a contextualised upskilling programme works best. At other times, working with participants to create a company’s first induction process might be a better, more sustainable approach.
“For us, it’s about working with companies of any size to embed literacy, language and numeracy into their workplace in a way that reflects their context, and that’s sustainable in the long term.”