New report shows the benefits of workplace basic education to employees and employers

September 22, 2021

Learning for work

Every year brings new technology and working practices, which increase business potential in many ways – improved efficiency, better customer service and more.

However, every year small and large businesses struggle to get staff to apply these new technologies and working practices.

So why do otherwise diligent employees have problems with change?

A new research report from the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) suggests that one reason is in low literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Findings from the research show that a lack of confidence in these basic skills prevent adults from taking on new responsibilities, applying for a promotion or taking up a training opportunity at work.

“I get a complete block every time I’m asked to write about something in work. I have no problem with figures. As soon as I’m asked to prepare a draft of something or send an email I just shut down.”

Quote from female employee, 45-54 age group.

This research went on to show that when the same adults returned to education and improved their literacy, numeracy and digital skills, they reported an increase in confidence and opportunities, particularly in the workplace.

“Sometimes when my supervisor has a day off I fill in for him and that’s when I get to use the skills I’ve learned. Like before I couldn’t understand the spread sheets and the different formulas, but now I do, and I can fill in for him when he’s not there.”

Quote from male employee, 45-54 age group.

In NALA’s report called ‘Learning for work, 59% of participants reported that their literacy or numeracy needs stopped them for going for a job they wanted. Most respondents (85%) reported that they had turned down jobs or the chance to take part in training offered in the work place.

“I turned down jobs several times. One time I went to a tyre centre and they were busy. I drove in myself and changed all four tyres. The owner approached me and tried very hard to get me to work for him. I couldn’t tell him I wouldn’t be able to do the bookwork.”

Quote from male employee, 45-54 age group.

“I’m an assistant at the moment, but I would prefer to work in administration, and I feel I can bring more to the team. I just don’t always feel confident in what I am saying. I would also like to get more qualifications. I end up messing up the interview and my application due to my lacking literacy skills.”

Quote from female employee, 45-54 age group.

In Ireland, 18% of the adult population (16-65) are at or below level 1 on a five-level literacy scale. 25% are at or below level 1 for numeracy.  55% of the adult population has low digital skills. This means they may struggle with reading text, doing simple maths or using technology.[ii] People with the lowest skill levels have low educational attainment, earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed. They are also less likely to take part in training, and be trapped in situation in which their skills do not improve or deteriorate over time (deskill).

“Low literacy, numeracy or digital skills hold people back from fulfilling their full potential. This is a loss to the individual and a loss to the employer. This research provides evidence of the concrete benefits of taking part in lifelong learning to the individual.  Engaging in learning enhances employees’ sense of confidence, ambition and interaction in and outside work. Employers experience increased worker satisfaction, productivity and retention. It is a win-win for employees and employers,” says Colleen Dube, NALA CEO.

What employers say

 “I don’t want to be in a situation whereby very soon a lot of my guys are going to be unemployable. I want to make sure that they stay at the front line of training, the front line of understanding. When you look at the equipment that’s coming online now it’s all software based, it’s all digital, all robotics. So, my people have to stay sharp in order for us to stay in business.”

“We always see the potential in people and that’s why we send them back to education. We’re after growing the business from like twenty odd employees to where we are today. We spent a lot of money on a new production line last year and the lads need specific training for the work they do or they will struggle doing it.”

Quote from the Director of Operations at a Packing plant.

The research showed that employees who upskill for their jobs are more adept and confident when using new technology in the workplace. They attribute this to their participation in adult learning, such as taking part in the Skills for Work (SfW) programme. SfW is a free part-time education and training initiative provided by the Education and Training Board’s adult literacy services.

“I think there are many ways that the company benefits. Prior to taking part in the course, a lot of our employees were not comfortable with technology. They wouldn’t know how to use it, or they weren’t comfortable using it. So, by them now doing this course they are getting more familiar with technology and how to use the computer. And, let me just say, these are clever guys and they’re some of the best workers you could get, but their skills level is so low that their future development is curtailed. So, all we’re doing is trying to encourage them and them taking part in the computer course is one way of doing this.”

Quote from the Director of Operations at a Packing plant.

Improved confidence

The research also showed that the training had a knock-on effect on employees’ confidence and personal lives with many of them using their newly learned skills with their family, at home.

“Well the kids are starting to use computers in school, they’re already computer savvy, but it’s good to be able to sit down with them and go through things with them and understand what they’re talking about.”         

Quote from male employee, 35-44 age group.

“What they’re learning they are taking home, they’re using their phones more, they’re using tablets, they are using computers more. And they’re no longer side lined or marginalised within their own families because of their inability to use IT”

Quote from Skills for Work tutor and coordinator


“The most important take-away from this research is that all these basic skills are ‘learnable’ and improving them can have a hugely positive impact on employees and employers. By taking a few simple steps companies can help employees and, in the process help their business too,” says Colleen Dube, NALA CEO.

“There are many free options available. Individuals can use NALA’s Tutoring Service or online platform Learn with NALA; and employers can use the free State funded Skills for Work Programme with their local ETB. Taking action on basic skills is simply another way of maximising your employees’ contribution to your company.”

About the research

In this research NALA got the views and experiences of adult learners in its Distance Learning Service; and adults taking part in the ETB Skills for Work Programme, their employer and the Skills for Work coordinator. NALA’s Distance Learning Service provides literacy, numeracy and digital skills tuition on the phone and online through The Skills for Work Programme is managed by Education and Training Boards and provides training opportunities to help employees deal with basic skills demanded in the workplace. NALA’s Distance Learning Service and ETB’s Skills for Work Programme are state funded and are free.

Other findings

  • The world of work is becoming more complex and uncertain and as a result, adults with literacy, numeracy and digital skill needs require support acquiring new skills to meet the changing demands of the labour market.
  • Participation rates in job related education and training are at least twice as high among adults who attained at least Level 4 in literacy than they are among those who attained at most Level 1. This can create a virtuous cycle for adults with high skills – and a vicious cycle for those with low skills.
  • The research shows that employees who upskill for their jobs report that they are more adept and confident when using new technology in the workplace. They attribute this to their participation in adult learning, namely taking part in the Skills for Work programme, delivered by the ETB adult literacy service. Research also suggests that a basic level of literacy and numeracy is essential for even minimal engagement in society as a citizen, consumer, parent or employee.
  • The participants in the research were asked how using NALA’s Distance Learning Service has benefited their work lives. They reported that the main benefit to them was an increase in confidence in the workplace. When asked how participating in learning had benefitted other areas of their lives, they reported that the main benefit to them was an increase in their general confidence and self-esteem.

Case Study

Laura’s story: an in-depth look at the benefits of learning

Laura is 57 years old. She left school early because her experience of education ‘wasn’t that great’. Her journey back into education started when she was in her fifties when she joined NALA’s Tutoring Service. She worked with a tutor over the phone to improve her spelling. This is her story in her own words:

“I was working in a warehouse that shifted office equipment. I developed plantar fasciitis in my foot and shoulder cause the work was very, very heavy [and I was unable to work]. The supervisor didn’t want me to leave and he said ‘look I’ll have a chat with the manager and see if there’s something else you can do.’”

“I was called in by the manager and he said ‘look, we don’t want to lose you, how do you fancy a part time job up in the office in customer services?’ So, I joined NALA to help me with my spellings and the tutor helped me update my CV cause I needed to do that as well. I knew I’d be fine on the phone but I was worried about emails and stuff like that because of the spellings. So, getting help with the spellings really helped me and I became a lot more confident about the work.”

“After a while I was getting better and better at what I was doing so they offered me a full-time job and now I’m working in the office as part of the sales team. I know this happened because I decided to update my skills. I probably should have gone back to education long before this, but getting the office job gave me the push I needed to be able to do this.”

“I can’t believe that at my age I’m now actually doing something I’ve always wanted to do. And I’ve signed up to do a computer course that can help me be more advanced in that area.”

“I never thought I’d be able to get a job like this because I never did my Inter-Cert in school, but I’m doing it. I’m really grateful for where I am now and I know I got it through my own hard work and perseverance. I wish it hadn’t taken so long, but now I can say I’m finally working in my dream job.”

This research shows the benefits to adults of taking part in adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills learning, and the benefit of this learning for their work and personal life. The National Adult Literacy Agency commissioned this research in 2021.

Findings from the survey with participants on NALA’s Distance Learning Service (DLS)

Most of the survey respondents were aged 45 – 54 years of age, and over half had completed lower secondary education. Slightly more men than women took part in the survey. The main findings from the survey were as follows:

  • The predominant reasons for joining the DLS was to help to upskill for a job or to help the respondents get a job
  • Significantly, nearly 60% of the learners reported that their literacy or numeracy needs had stopped them going for the job they wanted
  • Even more significant is the finding that 85% of the learners reported that they have turned down a promotion or training opportunity due to their literacy and numeracy needs
  • The biggest reported benefit to returning to education was an increase in confidence, particularly in the work place.

Main findings from the Skills for Work (SfW) interviews

  • The employer reported that there are many benefits to the company from its participation in the SfW programme. Primary among these is that a significant number of the workforce are now familiar with the technology that is used on the factory floor
  • The employees have increased their technical skills, and the employer has also noticed an increase in their overall confidence
  • The SfW programme has provided some workers with an opportunity to return to education that they may not otherwise have had or availed of
  • The employees report that they are more adept and confident at using technology on the factory floor


NALA aims to improve outcomes for adults with unmet literacy, numeracy and digital literacy needs in Ireland by using research to show why literacy matters to Irish society and to campaign for further investment in raising adult literacy levels in Ireland. The findings from this research show that adult learning has demonstrable benefits including increased confidence and skills development. We believe these findings are of significance to policy makers and employers and will inform current debates and strategies on the importance of improving basic skills among the Irish population and highlight the important role that adult learning plays in this.

Read the report

Download and read the full research report Learning for work here.

For further information contact:

Aoife Mulhall, NALA Communications Officer 086 889 5452

About NALA:

The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) is an independent charity and membership-based organisation. We work to support people with unmet literacy, numeracy and digital literacy needs to take part fully in society and have access to learning opportunities that meet their needs. We are involved in tutor training, developing teaching materials, policy making, research and awareness campaigns. We operate a distance learning service and provide tutor support over the phone, through the post or on the internet. We also offer literacy support through an e-learning website that helps adults to improve their skills and get a qualification if they want to.

To find out more about improving literacy, numeracy and digital literacy, Freephone NALA on 1800 20 2065 or see for more information.

See – The Right Course ( for training courses for employees.

[ii] CSO (2013). PIAAC 2012 – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies: Survey Results from Ireland and Cedefop (2020) – Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways. Volume 1: adult population with potential for upskilling and reskilling.

reading icon

Sign up to be kept up to date on our latest campaigns.