I have been involved with Adult Education and Training (AET) for the past 18 years. In this time, I have seen a lot, learned a lot, changed a lot, and been disappointed a lot.
Being born and raised in the old apartheid era I have had what I though was standard education opportunities. I worked hard at school learning to read, write, and do maths. Boys were taught to do carpentry, and girls were taught to make clothes and cook. Little did I realize, at the time, that there were thousands of South Africans who did not learn those same skills.
With the dawn of democracy came the Employment Equity Act, the Skills Development Act, the Skills Levey Act, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Scorecard, and other government attempts to provide equality and education for all the people of our new Rainbow Nation.
Yet, 22 years after the first democratic elections were held, the average level of English for the majority of South Africa’s blue collar workers is still Grade 3. That is the same level as an eight-year old child! Out of these workers the majority lack basic numeracy skills.
Am I disappointed? Yes! Am I surprised? No. Let me tell you why I am not surprised. After all these years I still meet with top management teams who believe it is not their responsibility to educate their workforce. That, if their workforce did not go to school, there is nothing the company can do about it. All they need are people who will do the work that an educated person would not care to do.
But what the people in top management teams do not understand is that a worker on a production line, who is able to read and write in English, will have a better understanding of what their job entails. A worker who is able to do basic calculations, and who can read and understand that 100cm is the same as 1m, will make less errors than one who does not have basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Most companies advocate innovation, moving with the times, making more money, and developing new systems. Yet top management forget (is it conveniently?) that all of the innovation they talk about starts with education. In order to implement those newly developed systems that will make the company innovative requires communication, and above all, education and training. No amount of innovation will make your company super successful if your blue collar workers have the English comprehension of an eight-year old child.
Why does it seem to me as if I’m the only one who can see the solution? I have never regarded myself as someone with an above-average intellect but I understand why it is important to have a literate workforce.
I have been in this industry for 18 years and I promised myself that I will get people to change, to understand the importance of helping those who did not have the chance to go to school and learn to read and write. One day at a time, I keep saying to myself.
Let’s do the right thing. Forget about the regulations of the Skills Development Act for a short moment and think about how you and your company can change the lives of those people your top management team deems important to get the work done yet unimportant as human beings. Teach them how to read and write in English, how to do basic calculations. Not only will you change their lives for the better but your company will see the results in its bottom-line.