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close this bookFunctional Literacy, Workplace Literacy and Technical and Vocational Education: Interfaces and Policy Perspectives - Studies No. 5 (UNEVOC, 1995, 66 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentFunctional literacy or work-oriented literacy
View the documentWorkplace literacy: Functional literacy by another name?
View the documentTechnical and vocational education and training
View the documentPolicy perspectives on education and training for work: within the framework of the present world order
View the documentNotes and bibliography

Workplace literacy: Functional literacy by another name?

[While the ideas discussed below should generally apply to workplace literacy programmes in a variety of work settings in different countries, this section has been written on the basis of experiences and materials from the United Stares of America.]

Functional literacy, also called work-oriented literacy, discussed in the preceding section stood on two legs: literacy, and functionality in economic skills. Workplace literacy, to be discussed below is, once again, literacy meant to be functional in the workplace - in a business firm or factory. Both these literacies have arrived at the same point, though historically, they started from two different bases. Functional literacy started with an initial pre-occupation with literacy and then sought to incorporate in itself functional skills for higher productivity, thereby seeking to make literacy motivational for learners. Workplace literacy started with a pre-occupation with productivity and then moved toward literacy to put it to work to increase productivity in the workplace.

Those enrolled in workplace literacy programmes are not necessarily illiterate, they are, however, functionally illiterate. It has been rightly said that the problem in developing countries is illiteracy, but in developed countries the problem is functional illiteracy. In the American setting as well as in the context of other developed countries, therefore, one has to contend with "functional" workplace literacy - in fact with a multiplicity of functional workplace literacies. Since different groups of workers in the same institutional context may have diverse linguistic-cultural and educational backgrounds, workplace literacy can range from simple reading and writing to levels of literacy that would normally be acquired by the end of secondary education or as part of post-secondary education. Successful workplace literacy programmes have indeed accommodated multiple levels of literacy to meet varied needs of different worker groups - from non-English speaking workers to underprepared high school graduates.

Its genesis

The declaration of war on illiteracy in America can be traced back to the early 1980s, though some would push it back to the "Right to Read" declaration of 1969. A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983) had talked of the decline of the American formal educational system in almost alarmist terms. By 1987, the concerns of literacy workers had expanded from the American school population to the American workforce (Johnston and Packer 1987).

The context of all these concerns was the economic climate of the 1980s. Workplace literacy can be rightly called the child of international economic competition, and born on the factory floors of America. America it seemed was losing in economic competition to the Japanese and to the Europeans. Business leaders of America talked about cost overruns, employee turnovers, wastage and equipment breakdowns, customer dissatisfaction and, as a consequence thereof, the inability to compete. Some others talked of their fears about the emergence of a two-tiered society by the year 2000 -- one group willing and able to work, the other lacking in skills and unemployable at any level (Philippines 1988).

No attention was paid, however, to structural factors, low R&D investments, bad management practices, sky-high salaries of CEO's and their cabinets, or to the myopic vision of American business that kept themselves focussed on the bottom line in a 90-day time-frame. The new mantra was productivity - which was low supposedly because of the worker's lack of capacity. Productivity could not be increased because the worker was untrainable. The worker was untrainable because he or she was functionally illiterate. Most of the blame was laid on the door of the school house. Schools were challenged to do better in teaching the Basics to their students. They were asked to restructure and reform to be able to prepare the new generation of students for the Hi-Tech workplace Of today and tomorrow. To help, the Government came up with a brand new recipe for the schools, called Tech-Prep.

For those already out of school and in the workplace, the solution was workplace literacy. The workers had to be given functional literacy integrated with job-related skills. In today's workplace, literacy was considered absolutely necessary, and an inadequate level of literacy was deemed to be absolutely unacceptable. The level and content of literacy of the worker had to be such so as to enable the worker to deal effectively with all the various aspects of work requiring reading, writing and computing. The worker should not merely be tending the machine but should be able to trouble-shoot and innovate.

The concept of workplace literacy, and its constituencies

At the beginning, workplace literacy programmes were developed primarily if not solely to teach or improve literacy skills directly usable in the workplace to increase productivity in the immediate and the long run. Improved productivity was the objective. Resocialization of the workers or transfer of literacy skills to the outside world was an incidental concern.

While workplace literacy programmes were initially directed to workers at the lowest levels, the needs of middle level blue collar and white collar workers continued to be covered under categories other than workplace literacy such as staff development or training and development. Again, though not all workplace literacy programmes serve historically disadvantaged groups, in many cases the constituencies and beneficiaries of workplace literacy happened to be women and minorities - Blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Haitians and others. In terms of work settings, workplace literacy programmes covered a wide range from food services, hospitals, to security firms, banks, and assembly plants.

Criticism of workplace literacy programmes as originally conceived and as too often practiced was directed to the ideology of the programme. At best, it was seen as the professionalization of labor, but at its worst, it was seen as more effective exploitation of workers. Most of the gains, if not all, accruing from increased productivity allegedly went to employers and not to their workers. Questions such as these were raised: Why should the worker not be seen as a whole person? Why shouldn't the employer make human use of human beings in the workplace? Why should literacy not be conceived more generally? Why shouldn't the worker get a fair share of increased productivity? Why shouldn't the worker find both satisfaction with work and an authentic sense of empowerment at work?

It should be stated, of course, that many employers have indeed found it in their enlightened self-interest to expand the conception of workplace literacy. They have not only funded training to upgrade low-level literates but also supported educational programmes that are both higher and wider in educational goals and social objectives. Some workplace literacy programmes today go much farther than those narrowly focussed old-style workplace literacy programmes to broad-scale, humanistic programmes that may cover not just the worker but the worker's family.

Curriculum, Content, Methods and Materials

Since there are multiple strands of print-based training related to workplaces, there are obviously a variety of curricula, contents, methods and materials in use. At the lower levels of workplace literacy where the essential objective is to teach literacy or functional literacy to increase productivity by incorporating the worker in the culture of print and technology, the following situation prevails.

The curriculum and content of workplace literacy is typically determined by the functional context of work and is often requires to be custom-designed. The core curricular objective is often improvement of performance. A direct linkage between literacy and related basic skills, and enhancement in work-related performance is assumed, and literacy is taught in the context of reading needs of the job. Teaching may also include instructions on how to reduce waste, improve workplace safety, and learning to trouble shoot in case of equipment breakdowns. Choice of curriculum content may be varied according to job categories and their requirements leading to different strands of curriculum. The cultural and language background of workers often introduces another important variation involving English language literacy or teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL). As remarked above, several employers have set their sights on long-term human development goals as well.

The methodological debate in workplace literacy resonates to the similar debate in functional literacy: economic functionality versus critical consciousness. The functional context method uses the standard instructional development model. It is focussed on productivity and uses a "literacy audit" combined with a general "task analysis." The task analysis follows the standard approach of identifying elements of tasks, and strategies both visible and mental used in accomplishing those tasks, and then determining the literacy skills required for specific job tasks. A curriculum is then developed around the skills identified (Mikulecky and Lloyd 1992). On the opposite scale is the worker-centered method that takes in view the personal, social and cultural needs of the worker including family and child rearing and survival and is informed generally by the theories of whole language and participatory education (Gowen, 1992; Freire and Macedo 1987).

The functional context method remains the method of preference. The teaching materials of workplace literacy include a whole range of things - primers, jobs aids, videos, computer assisted instruction and, in Hi-tech work environments, simulations. Some of these materials are designed in context, some other may be gathered from outside sources. Instruction may be delivered in classes, small groups or in individual tutoring format.

The organization of delivery

Programme sponsorship has come from employers, labor unions, governments and philanthropic non-government organizations. The nature of partnerships changes depending on the context and interests of agencies entering in those partnerships. An emerging pattern seems to be the delivery of workplace literacy through a consulting agency which may be a business firm or a non-profit organization. Where the provider is a non-profit organization, it is supported by public or private funds and, thereby bring a subsidy to the employers in their projects of workplace literacy.

Assessments and critiques

Several evaluations workplace, literacy programmes have pointed to the necessity of committing higher levels of resources if substantive results are to be achieved. Presently workplace literacy programmes on the average plan for about 30 hours of instruction which is quite insufficient. Instruction is designed to fulfill the training needs of workers as seen by supervisors - thereby inhibiting if not negating the idea of learner motivations. Yet indicators used in evaluations are excessively optimistic as important changes are expected in beliefs about learners own literacy, literacy practices at work and at home, processes and strategies of using literacy skills in reading a variety of materials in varied contexts, plans of learners about their literacy and the possibilities of its utilization, and plans for the future learning activities (Lytle 1990 in Henard et. al. 1992, p. 55). There are expectations of workers learning basic literacy skills and applying them to job related tasks, to learn to understand the underlying processes that drive their work, become more productive and adjusted, and finally be able to transfer literacy skills learned in the workplace to family and to community settings. Workplace literacy quite often is somehow expected to transform itself into family literacy.

Depending upon what model of literacy assessment is used, different results have been identified. Those conducting assessments within the frame of the functional context model have been disappointed with the results. Some learning has occurred, but there is loss in learning within a few weeks if skills are not practiced. Transfer of learning has been very limited (Mikulecky and Lloyd 1992) since transfer is seldom specifically "cued, primed and guided" (Perkin and Solomon 1989:19).

Another set of evaluations has raised the question: Whose interests are being served through these workplace literacy programmes? As could be expected, depending upon the ideological frame, different assessments have reached different conclusions. Some have questioned the very objectives of workplace literacy. Today's workplace, they assert, does not require literacy skills since the prevailing organization of work is visual (color-coded) rather than one requiring reading and writing. Literacy, they continue, may be improving merely oral skills and not performance skills. Teaching and training materials do not always match with the realities of the workplace, some others have noted. Workplace literacy may be typifying workers such that their occupational mobility may be reduced. A more radical critique charges that workplace literacy "is also an attempt to change employees' ways of constructing and displaying knowledge to more closely match those of mainstream employers and educators" which does in fact often invite resistance from workers (Gowen 1992, p. 74). Critics regret that classism, racism, sexism continues unabated in the workplace environment. At best "literacy represents not just knowledge, but true power in the workplace: economic, social, real and symbolic power" but that role of literacy can be actualized only if truly authentic, worker-centered literacy can indeed be offered in the workplace (See cover of Gowen 1992).

The Present and the future of workplace literacy

Some policy analysts are, therefore, of the view that while workplace literacy may be ameliorative in some specific contexts in some particular places, on the whole, the enterprise of workplace literacy may be somewhat misguided. The problem with the workplace is not necessarily lack of skills but unresponsive and just structures. The technology of work does not even demand greater skills from the worker, indeed technology has deskilled jobs. What is needed are more jobs, a living wage, and management approaches that make human use of human beings. None of these can be solved by workplace literacy.

All of above seems to sound like a big exaggeration, though an exaggeration of a vital truth. Workplace literacy programmes that are well-conceived, well-designed, and well-executed needed in the short and the medium run. Such programmes can serve the interests of both employers and the employees. In the long run what is needed are changes in the workplace itself, in the economic structures of the society and in the superstructures of values we live by.