Literacy begins at home

Safety concerns are forcing employers to tackle workforce literacy, but they must make sure to help the whole team, argues John Dwyer

There’s a site in Sheffield which resounds to the clamour of no fewer than 22 different languages. Gunstones Bakery, part of Northern Foods, employs 1,600 to make its sandwiches and other bread-based products for Marks & Spencer, and it’s just one company which is funding projects to help its migrant workers with their English.

A new CBI and the TUC booklet, English Language at Work, is full of examples like Gunstones which show our economy’s increasing dependence on what used to be called immigrants. As you’d expect, a fair proportion of the employers listed are from the service sector, but not all the manufacturers are in the food industry. As well as Gunstones and fish processors Strathaird Salmon, they include textile manufacturer Courtaulds in Derbyshire and military supplier VT Shipbuilding in Portsmouth.

The CBI-TUC initiative is an obvious, much-needed response to the arrival of migrant workers from eastern Europe. As TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and CBI director-general Richard Lambert say in their introduction, we are all better off because of migrant workers, who were responsible for £6 billion, a sixth, of the UK economy’s total growth in 2006.

But managing the issues this immigration raises in the workplace must be a nightmare. For example, no less than 75 per cent of the workforce at Strathaird are from eastern Europe and Iraq. And many managers will no doubt have had to confront a further issue the numbers give rise to, which is the difficulty of balancing the training needs of the many against those of the indigenous few. On tight (and about to get tighter) training budgets, it must be tempting to spend so much time looking after the 75 per cent that the other quarter have to take a back seat.

A year ago Sandy Leitch’s final report into the UK’s long-term skills needs noted the UK’s failure to develop basic skills. The unwelcome fact is that five million UK adults lack functional literacy and seven million are, effectively, innumerate.

The main means of combating the problem, the TUC’s learning and skills policy officer, Caroline Smith, tells me, is the Skills for Life programme now run by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and largely delivered by the trades unions’ 18,000 union learning reps (ULRs).
DIUS secretary of state John Denham told a recent conference that Skills for Life has provided 10.5 million courses and other ‘learning opportunities’ to 4.7 million people since it began in 2001. Over 1.75 million people now have at least their first Skills for Life qualification.

As Smith points out, life skills like reading and writing aren’t just a practical matter. They go to the core of how people live. Most people at work, she said, would like to be able to help their kids with their homework.

Managing individuals is difficult enough – ask anyone who’s tried it. Managing people who, amid coping with whatever life has thrown at them, are feeling guilty about passing their own failings on to their children just adds to workplace angst. So employers, long complaining about what they see as the education system’s failure to give school leavers the basic tools they need to earn a living, have every reason to welcome and support any literacy project that seeks to put matters right. And they are, though much of the employer motivation is to avoid health and safety risks.

At the launch of English Language at Work, CBI deputy director-general John Cridland was more diplomatic. He listed the business benefits of investing in language skills as “improvements in productivity, savings in recruitment, lower turnover and higher employee motivation.”

He was speaking, of course, about the need to develop the skills of migrant labour. But without, I hope, giving the least crumb of credibility to the illiterate goons in the British National Party, could I enter a plea for all concerned to remember that productivity, motivation and, for that matter, safety, are just as beneficial to the overwhelming majority who were born here?