At one company where I was Human Resources Manager, concern about worker literacy prompted me to begin testing job applicants through the state job service, which used standardized literacy tests. That experiment didn’t last long, however, because nearly 50% of applicants couldn’t pass the basic reading and math portions of the test. The job service was afraid to continue the testing because it was “eliminating too many candidates.” So I developed my own pre-hire testing process. I ran the test by the EEOC, who approved it, saying it was “the best kind” because it was “based on the work itself.” All applicants were asked to read several paragraphs of applicant information, then answer ten basic questions about what they had read. Those who could not correctly answer the questions were not hired. Nearly 50% of applicants could not pass the test. My reasoning was this: if they couldn’t read the most basic information, how could they possibly read the safety instructions, company policies, and benefits information? How could they follow machine operating instructions? How could they complete their basic productivity reports? My initial concerns were based on a report released by the state workforce development department. At that time, according to the report, there was a shocking level of illiteracy among school students in the state. I reasoned if that was the case, it was likely true for my entry level workers as well. And my concern was verified when I tested our current employees. Fully 36% could not read or do basic math at the eighth grade level. No wonder we had so many production problems! For example, we had asked employees to give us a simple daily calculation of their daily productivity. Most simply didn’t comply. Once we discovered their illiteracy, we understood why. So we changed our in-house training, issued simple solar calculators, and taught workers how to use them to calculate the productivity. Compliance went up to 100%. Over the next two years, we changed every training program to consider reading and math skills, and productivity, quality and compliance issues went away. So now my question to business owners and managers, Human Resources staff, trainers, engineers and production supervisors is simple: do you really know the level of knowledge and skill your employees have? If you’ve not tested them, you’re only assuming, and your assumptions may be wildly incorrect. Start by surveying the records of all your current employees, as well as all those who once worked for your company and left for any reason. Keep track of things like whether they graduated high school or not, graduated from a tech school or not, which school they attended, and so on. My survey found that 100% of workers who had attended or graduated from two particular are school systems had left the company before completing one full year of employment, costing the company tens of thousands of dollars in turnover. What are you doing about workforce illiteracy? I’d love to hear your comments and solutions for this huge problem.
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