Workplace Basic Education


One of the most significant challenges facing business and industry at the beginning of the twenty first century is finding creative ways to manage change. Every year brings new technology and working practices, which increase our business potential in many ways – potential for higher production targets, improved efficiency, better customer service and more.

However, as every entrepreneur knows, success must be built on, not taken for granted. This means ensuring that our most important resource – people – continue to have the knowledge and skills they need to participate in the workplace and to make a full contribution to it.

The successful firm of the future will maintain its competitive edge by applying knowledge in the workplace at all levels – from the managing director to the shop floor. Yet national and international research shows that every year, small and large businesses needlessly lose customers, orders and profits as a result of mistakes which otherwise diligent employees make in applying basic skills at work.

Basic Skills – what and why?

Basic skills are often known as literacy and numeracy. We use these skills a great deal in everyday life, including our working life. We also make use of basic skills when we learn something new. It would be difficult to learn how to use information technology or certain new tools and equipment, without being comfortable with reading, writing, verbal communication or with different aspects of numeracy.

Literacy involves listening and speaking, reading, writing, numeracy and using everyday technology to communicate and handle information. In 1997 the OECD carried out an international survey which examined how well adults could handle different types of reading and numeracy tasks which crop up regularly in work and in daily life – such as reading timetables, reading the labels on medicine bottles, or calculating and estimating quantities. This International Adult Literacy Survey concluded that one in four – that is, about half a million - Irish adults ‘have problems with even the simplest literacy task such as reading instructions on a bottle of aspirin. It also found that one in six ‘of those who are in employment are at the lowest level’.

It is worth noting as well that the problem is not evenly distributed across the workforce: instead, particular occupations have a very high proportion of employees with low levels of education. Another important group of workers who may have good basic skills are people whose first language is not English. It is important to know that having gaps in basic skills does not mean that the individual has problems with all of the basics of reading, writing, verbal communication and number work. We all have things we are good at and other things we struggle with, and it works in much the same way with basic skills. People can be very good at one thing but have a real difficulty with another, which can interfere with their overall performance.

For this reason, the basic skills question is about identifying the extent of specific gaps and weaknesses, especially when these are in areas of work which are crucial to the success and productivity of your business and the safety of your employees. You should be able to identify most of these important areas yourself and get a general impression of where there might be skills gaps amongst your workforce.

Taking Action

Gaps in literacy and numeracy hold people back from fulfilling their potential. This is a loss to the individual and also represents a loss of talent to you, the employer. By taking a few simple steps you can help employees to overcome these difficulties, and help your business too. Taking action on basic skills is simply another way of maximising your employees’ contribution to your company.

Here are four simple actions which will help you to help your workers, and improve your business at the same time.

Action 1: Scan your working environment - this gives you a general idea of how frequently different basic skills are used in your workplace.

Action 2: Think about the job - you break down the tasks involved in specific jobs where you employ people, and work out what basic skills they need to carry out particular activities.

Action 3: Think about the people - you identify strengths and weaknesses in how employees do their job, and identify problems which might be a result of problems with basic skills.

Action 4: Decide how to help - depending on what you learn from Action 2 and 3, you offer employees a suitable basic skills support strategy, chosen from a menu of options.


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An Employers' Guide to Basic Skills at Work

Right from the start - a guide to supporting staff and connecting with customers