A group of national organisations is now calling for increased government funding, greater awareness, collaboration and prioritisation of adult literacy needs to tackle the issue.
Together the Industry Training Federation, Business New Zealand, English Language Partners, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions – Te Kauae Kaimahi, and Literacy Aotearoa have developed a “workforce literacy call to action”.
Literacy Aotearoa chief executive Bronwyn Yates said adult literacy skills development needed to be “urgently and more comprehensively” addressed.
“This represents a massive group of the forgotten and the long-neglected, undermining the very foundations of a prosperous nation and a fair society.”
Pacific Homecare chief executive Hamish Crooks backed the call and urged employers to take literacy seriously.
He said 90 per cent of Pacific Homecare staff spoke English as a second language so the organisation invested in literacy training.
“When I first started, we were lucky if five per cent of our staff had qualifications. They couldn’t participate in study. Now it’s up to 85 per cent.”
He said improving literacy had obvious benefits to the employee and employer.
“They’re able to understand health and safety, able to read and understand policies.”
However, he said the social benefit was far more important.
“Some of the return is economic for sure, but the main part is the social side. Our families can participate fully in society.”
Pacific Homecare’s average worker was 46-years-old and a “multitasking mother”, he said.
“By supporting our staff, the next generation gets to see the value of education too. It creates important moments for the family.”
He said other employers should take “the first step” towards supporting staff and making an investment in education.
“It’s a longer term view, a journey. For our staff, it empowers them. That in turn empowers the people we work with. It’s a great investment for society.”
Careerforce spokesman Paul Williams said it was “hugely supportive” of any measures that would improve literacy and numeracy rates.
He said for the aged care or community support sector, improving staff literacy had numerous benefits.
“Employees are able to report incidents more accurately, and flag up changes, in both written and oral form, which ultimately improves outcomes for those that they are charged with caring for, and this reduces risks.”
A boost in confidence and enhanced employability was another benefit to upskilling.
“There are also many other personal benefits such as being able to more fully engage in and support their children’s learning, and be involved in the wider community generally.”
He said employers could make use of a fund to support staff education.
“Unfortunately, the aged care and community care sector only applies for about three per cent of this employer-led fund, so Careerforce would love to see more of this funding coming into this sector.”
The most recent International Assessment of Adult Competencies shows adult numeracy skills in New Zealand are in general higher than the OECD average.
However, the nation is still underperforming, sitting at 13 out of the 40 nations surveyed.
The gap in average literacy and numeracy skills between Maori adults and the total population narrowed between 1996 and 2014, as it did for Pasifika.
Yates said while that was positive, the gap was still substantial, and was not narrowing fast enough.
“In another 20 years we may be in a better position, but that would mean another generation of literacy lag.”