Thousands of working New Zealanders have low literacy and numeracy skill levels that show up in our workplace accident rates, our levels of absenteeism due to injury and our low productivity. There are more than 300,000 employees in our workforce with very low literacy skills and another 800,000 employees that don’t have the all necessary literacy and numeracy skills they need to do their job properly.
The logistics industry, like many others in New Zealand, relies on overseas workers. Many of these workers are well qualified and experienced but their poor language skills prevent them participating fully in the workplace.
Mark Netten, Group Director Snell Packaging and Safety Ltd realised that there was a gap between what the company needed and the skills of employees. “For the company to maintain its market leader position it needs to be innovative, cost effective and ready and able to meet its customers’ packaging and safety requirements. That wasn’t happening.” Snell is the leading distributor of packaging supplies and safety products in New Zealand. It distributes over 15,000 products and employs around 100 staff. Over 20% of its workforce are of Pacific Island or Asian origin and have English as a second language.
“We tried to introduce performance evaluation and we realised we had a problem when some participants were unable to understand what was required. What compounded the problem was that those who didn’t understand wouldn’t discuss it. No-one would speak up at meetings – it was impossible to get feedback on any of the company initiatives.”
Mark knew that for the company to be successful, Snell’s employees need to be more actively engaged to increase value for the business. But like thousands of other New Zealand workers, Snell employees were being held back by not being able to communicate effectively, either from poor language skills or having missed out on schooling. It was frustrating for Mark. He knew the employees were bright – some held senior positions in their communities, but they were prevented from bringing those skills into the workplace.
The company’s Human Resources Advisor suggested literacy training run by Workbase, a not for profit organisation specialising in improving workplace literacy. There were two objectives for the training: to improve productivity by improving communication skills and to make employees feel more confident in their ability to communicate both in and away from the workplace.
“We implemented Workbase’s workplace literacy programs for 21 employees (19 Pacific Island and 2 Asian) here at our distribution centre in Penrose. Some employees were suspicious about the training at first, so everyone was assessed to ensure that no one felt singled out.
Workbase carried out a needs analysis for the company and its employees and the training was then tailored to what was required. The training covered communication skills – listening, vocabulary, reading, speaking and also mathematics. It was based around unit standards so that each employee could work towards an NZQA qualification. It was also contextualised so that what was learned could be directly applied to the work.”
Bruce Graham, Warehouse Manager, says that the employee training has very positive effects. “The general atmosphere in the warehouse has changed considerably. Employees are much happier and have the confidence now to come and talk to me and other managers. Before, when we held team meetings and I’d ask a question, all I would get was blank expressions. It is part of the Pacific Island culture not to speak out – being silent is being polite and showing respect. Now everyone talks – they understand that it is not rude to speak up and ask questions.
Bruce has seen the positive effect of the training across a range of job skills. Improvements in vocabulary and mathematics have resulted in improved picking rates for participants. Each picker operates with a hand held terminal which shows where to find the allocated products and how many to pick. This means that pickers have to be able to calculate proportions of items when an order is not for an exact number of boxes. Being able to do this accurately and quickly means cost savings for the company.
The company measures these savings by the drop of credits for returned goods. Goods are returned when either the wrong item is sent or the number of items is wrong. Over the past year there has been a drop in picking errors of 74%. “This is a cost saving for the company and of course it keeps our customers happier when they receive fewer wrong deliveries,” says Bruce.
“Some of the participants take their exercises home to do with their family. They are using what they learn beyond Snell and their work life. They use it at church and in the other ways they contribute to their community.”
From the employee’s perspective
Joyce Saulala is Air Traffic Controller in the warehouse and speaks Tongan as her first language. She co-ordinates orders received from customer service, allocates the jobs to pickers and notes the location of goods as well as any priority associated with the job. “A key part of my job is being able to make myself understood and communicating with colleagues and customers. I am a shy person and I didn’t like speaking at meetings.” Joyce also didn’t feel confident in her English language skills.
Training covered listening skills, vocabulary, grammar and maths. Joyce feels the training has made a real difference. “I can speak more easily to colleagues so they know what I want them to do and I feel much more confident about speaking up in meetings. I can talk to managers without feeling embarrassed and I can talk to customers and handle customer enquiries without getting stressed. I feel more confident in booking orders for deliveries too.”
The training has also helped Joyce at home. She now helps her son with his maths and in her church group she is willing to speak up which benefits the work she does with youth groups.
Wesley Delana describes how the training in maths has helped him pick products much more accurately. “I could remember some of the maths from school but I needed help to remind me how to work out amounts and percentages.” Wesley found that knowing percentages helped him understand the Snell statistics and graphs on the notice board. “We need to be able to multiply and divide how many items are in a packet and how many packets are in a box. I know I am being more accurate now and faster in my picking.”
The training also showed Wesley how to question if he doesn’t understand. Before in meetings he would stay quiet if he didn’t understand something because he thought it was rude to speak out. “Now at our weekly meetings where we get operational updates, report near misses or talk about new laws, I am happy to speak up. For example, we get a lot of visitors coming to the distribution centre who don’t have the high visibility vest they need to wear. I suggested to my manager that we could have spare safety vests hanging up near the entrance for them to use, and now we are doing that.”
Katherine Percy is the Chief Executive of Workbase “Low literacy levels are endemic across most industries. New Zealand is not alone. Similar literacy levels are found other OECD countries. Workplace demands and changes in technology are moving faster than we can keep up with. There are more than 300,000 employees in our workforce with very low literacy skills and another 800,000 employees that don’t have the all necessary skills they need to do their job properly.
This means we need to address low literacy, language and numeracy skills in workplaces now. 60% of our workforce for the next 20 years is already working. If we want to improve productivity in New Zealand, we must improve literacy levels of our existing workforce”.
About The Author:
For more information contact:
Nick Miles, Account Manager
Workbase: The New Zealand Centre for Workforce Literacy Development
(09) 361 3800