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Literacy and numeracy are holding Australia back

Poor literacy and numeracy skills in up to half of Australia's workforce are holding business back.

This is the message being delivered by industry, government and advisory bodies, including Skills Australia, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), the Australian Industry (AI) Group and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

The statistics speak for themselves. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS) revealed that Australian language, literacy and numeracy levels have shown little improvement in the decade since the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS).

It found that:

  • Approximately 7 million Australian adults (46 per cent) had literacy scores below the minimum level needed to function fully in life and work
  • Approximately 7.9 million (53 per cent) had numeracy scores below the minimum needed.

(Australian Workforce Futures - A National Workforce Development Strategy - a report produced by Skills Australia in 2010.)

Robin Shreeve and Marilyn Hart (CEO, and Director Policy and Projects, respectively, at Skills Australia), shared their views with CIT in late May on this important issue. Some of their responses have been incorporated into the article below, but you can also listen to the full interview directly.

The Skills Australia team L-R Robin Shreeve, Caitlin Larkin, Marilyn Hart, Benjamin O'Cianain, Saloni Varma, Peter Giesinger and Caroline Smith.

What are the negative effects of low literacy and numeracy?

The first and most pressing is the risk of injury and even death of employees who can't understand the meaning of everyday words and terms, including words like "mandatory", "hearing protection", "procedure" and "authorised". Workers may also be unable to leave instructions or warnings to employees, particularly in shift work; may incorrectly interpret safety or repair manuals; or not be able to understand OH&S instructions given by their organisation.

The second issue is inefficiencies caused by employees not being able to communicate fully with the people they interact with at work. For example, if an employer sends an instruction via email and this instruction is misinterpreted, the work of the employee will need to be redone once the error is identified, making the individual, and the organisation, less productive overall.

The third issue is that low literacy and numeracy skills are a huge barrier to upskilling.

Anita Roberts, a consultant on literacy issues for Innovation and Business Skills Australia (IBSA), says this issue in particular is restricting the ability of Australian industry to grow.

"Literacy and numeracy problems become particularly evident at the supervisor level. Many good workers effectively hit  a glass ceiling at this level because their limited literacy and numeracy skills prevent them from progressing further and from making a greater contribution to their workplace, and to their own career."

"This is a particularly significant issue, given the number of industries experiencing skills shortages, and the essential role that upskilling can play in helping to alleviate skills shortage pressures."

Who has poor literacy and numeracy skills?

Many people fail to develop adequate skills for a variety of reasons - and it's not necessarily the people you would expect:

  • There isn't much difference in literacy skills between males and females, although women are more likely to have low numeracy skills.
  • While those with post-school qualifications are significantly more likely to have adequate literacy skills, at least 20 per cent of degree holders have literacy skills below the minimum required level.
  • Although recent migrants from non-English speaking countries are proportionally more likely to have lower level literacy skills, this gap has reduced dramatically over the ten years from 1996 to 2006.
  • Older people generally rate lower than younger people for literacy - although there are distinct "black spots".
  • Most people are not good at judging their own literacy and numeracy levels, with many rating their skills as "excellent" despite tests revealing their skills to be inadequate.  

(Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS))


According to Skills Australia Chief Executive Robin Shreeve, the most important first step is getting all the key players "singing off the same hymn sheet" - which he believes has largely been achieved. Robin says we have never seen a greater commitment by all the key players to employee literacy and numeracy skills - and that we are now in an ideal position to drive change.

Skills Australia's Marilyn Hart went on to say Australia already has some programs in place, such as the Workplace English, Language and Literacy (WELL) program, and the Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLNP) program, both for adults, which "aren't necessarily perfect, but which are having very positive benefits". Skills Australia advocates additional support for these programs as an important solution, and Marilyn noted that we have started to see this in the latest Commonwealth budget, which has just committed a further $120 million to this issue over the next four years.

Skilled teachers were also cited as a vital factor in improving adult literacy and numeracy, particularly as employees often resist being singled out for special treatment or formal training.
Teachers need to work within training programs that allow all employees to build their communication, language, literacy or numeracy skills within the scope of their job, as this approach is often more successful than targeted solutions where individuals are more likely to disengage from the learning process.

To compound matters, it can be difficult for the employer to identify which of their staff need extra help, with the Skills Australia report noting that "individuals are often reluctant to admit any shortcoming to an employer… and learn to manage and hide the problem, making it difficult for employers to recognise the problem".

LEAVE A COMMENT: Do low literacy and numeracy skills negatively affect your workplace? Tell us below.

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