George Bancs
Sep 08 2020

How adult literacy levels affect the economy

Today is UNESCO’s International Literacy Day, it reminds the world of the current status of adult literacy and learning, as well as highlighting changes, improvements and issues surrounding literacy.

When we think of adult illiteracy, we immediately picture developing countries, where literacy rates can be as low as 19% . However rates closer to home can be just as startling, the UN recently created this video addressing the sobering fact that over half a million Australians between the ages of 15 and 85, are illiterate.

In Tasmania organisations such as 26TEN, work with businesses and the Government to improve adult reading, writing, numeracy and communication skills across the state. This is motivated by the statistic that 48% of Tasmanians do not have the literacy and numeracy skills they need for life in a “technologically-rich world”.

26TEN focuses particularly on literacy levels and the economy, believing that improving adult literacy and numeracy is key to the economic future of Tasmania. Their theory has been proven right so far, as a recent study by the Institute of Project Management found that the socio-economic value created by the 26TEN Tasmania Strategy in 2018-19 , was at least $27.2 million, based on the Tasmanian Government’s $5.3 million investment.

According to the report, every $1 the Tasmanian Government invested into the strategy saw a $5.20 return, providing a “significant social, economic and cultural benefit to the state”. Find more stats from the study here .

This is an area that piques my interest - how can low literacy levels affect the economy, and specifically businesses, and what can we do to improve this?

26TEN uses TasWater as a case study, where a skills audit showed 90 staff who would benefit from participating in a 26TEN literacy improvement project.

According to the case study: When TasWater started training in qualifications such as skills sets for compliance safety training. A number of staff were struggling, not because of their knowledge or ability, but because their literacy skills weren’t up to the task.

Since improving the literacy levels of their workers, TasWater has seen improved productivity, compliance, quality of work, commitment and communication.

As touched upon in this case study, English proficiency can be a major safety hazard. According to the Australian Reading and Writing Hotline , all workers need reading, writing and maths skills to work safely and comply with standards – on-site, in the field and in the office.

This video highlights some key safety risks when literacy levels become a barrier to adequate understanding of W&HS procedures

We can see that improving literacy levels has a major part to play in employee wellbeing, but what about the everyday tools businesses can put in place, to ensure those with lower literacy levels are not alienated, excluded, or worse at a higher safety risk? For some, literacy levels are a result of conditions such as dyslexia, and therefore may not be improved through extra training and education.

When I developed Talk 5 there were two non-negotiables to ensure effective W&HS communication and execution:

More often than not, those with low literacy levels do not speak out, but do their best to decipher what they can, leaving major gaps in their safety knowledge, this can be dangerous and sometimes fatal in high-risk environments like construction sites. Allowing them the option to hear the safety procedures and audits audibly and speak their answers, means we can be much more certain everything is adequately understood.

This is an area where, as employers, we can’t afford to be complacent. By giving workers access to apps such as Talk 5, that support them to do their job safely, we can create a workplace of inclusion and, as was the case with TasWater, improve productivity and motivation across the business.

For more information on improving the literacy levels of your employees head here and if you’re based in Tasmania, it’s worth checking out the 26 TEN grants . You can get more information on how Talk 5 can improve the safety and communication of your workforce here .

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