Millions of workers behind in basic skills

Basic skills shortage

By Sid Maher   

Australia’s international competitiveness is under threat because up to eight million Australian workers don’t have the reading, writing or numeracy skills to undertake training for trade or professional jobs.

The nation’s 11 Industry Skills Councils will today call for a new campaign to tackle endemic numbers of workers with poor reading and writing skills, launching a report detailing the problems being faced by industry training bodies.

The bodies say they are confronting inadequately prepared school leavers, an ageing workforce struggling to cope with technological advances and overseas-born workers with English as a second language.

The report, No More Excuses, calls for the Council of Australian Governments to develop a national “overarching blueprint for action on language, literacy and numeracy”.

The report will reignite the skills debate at a time when industry is warning of the re-emergence of shortages of trained workers and Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have thrust workforce participation and getting the long-term unemployed into work to the front of the political debate.

The report says “the situation looks as if it could be getting worse, not better” in terms of the language, literature and numeracy skills of workers.

“International studies have shown that over the past two decades, Australia’s literacy and numeracy skill levels have stagnated while those of other countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, have improved.

“By continuing to accept the current levels, we are limiting the future success of individuals, businesses and our economy,” the Industry Skills Councils say in a joint statement to be released today.

The report calls for industry training programs to be provided with specific funding to tackle language, literacy and numeracy gaps faced by students and overseas-born workers with English as a second language.

It also calls for recruits to be given better advice about the language and maths requirements of training courses.

Forest Works chief executive Michael Hartman, who runs training programs for the forest, wood, paper and timber products industry, said literacy and numeracy were the “foundation of productivity”.

A failure to improve skills among both school leavers and experienced workers would see Australian businesses fall behind international competitors.

Electrocomms and Energy Utilities Industry Skills Council chief executive Bob Taylor told The Australian a decade of calls for skill-ready school leavers had failed to achieve any tangible improvements.

And the resources and infrastructure industry skills council, SkillsDMC, writes in the report that some indigenous recruits on resources projects have learning levels as low as primary school grade four.

This means that providing them with literacy and numeracy skills “is costly and time-consuming, and often results in the employee spending more time at training than at work”.

Mr Taylor said industry had been complaining about the poor quality of literacy and numeracy among school leavers looking to enter the trades for more than 10 years and there had been no improvement.

He said the report was aimed at ending the “blame game” and incorporating basic reading, writing and numeracy skills into preliminary training courses.

He said lack of skills in this area was a “real issue” in terms

of drop-out rates of apprentices and schools needed to become more focused on providing the relevant skills to the 70 per cent of students who would not attend university and seek work in a trade.

Mr Taylor said preliminary training courses to allow regional workers access to jobs on the National Broadband Network included facets of basic literacy and numeracy training.

He said it was “quite frustrating” that basic maths and physics of the 15- to 16-year-olds seeking trades in the 1960s was superior to today’s 18-year-olds seeking trades.

Mr Hartman said his industry was confronting literacy and numeracy problems among older workers who had been long-term employees in industries that were suddenly facing technological change.

He said under current training arrangements, there was not a lot of money available to enable trainers to help students struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills and this needed to be addressed: “It is a major problem in our society; unless we tackle it, we’ll fall further behind in terms of international competitiveness and the skills of our people.”

Article from The Australian, April 4, 2011.

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