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Three R's at Work

• volume 1 • number 4

When English is spoken as a second language (ESL) there are likely to be problems in communication and understanding. But what about EFL ­ when English is a first language?

What assumptions do we make about reading and writing skills among those we interview, hire, and employ? This is a growing issue with hourly employees whose jobs are becoming more technical.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review chronicled some of Motorola's discoveries about the literacy of their own workforce and of external candidates.

Mortorola reported discovering, "to our utter astonishment that much of our workforce was illiterate. They couldn't read. They couldn't do simple arithmetic like percentages and fractions. At one plant a supplier changed its packaging, and we found in the nick of time that our people were working by color of the package, not by what it said."

Math test scores among employees showed that only 40% could pass a test with questions like "Ten is what percent of 100?". The real surprise came when it was discovered that the poor math performance was due to an inability to read.

For many immigrant employees who spoke ESL, company downsizings eliminated several layers of middle managers who acted as translators. There were no longer people available to take directions in English off a computer screen and put them into spoken English for those who couldn't read or into other languages for those who didn't know English.

When Motorola offered an ESL course at a plant in Florida, they expected three percent of their employees to sign up. The real number was ten times greater and they then realized one-third of their current employees could not read company memos, work order changes, or labels on boxes.

So what's going on in your company? Do you really know? Motorola found out their engineering group writes work order changes, product specifications, and product manuals at an 11th ­ 12th grade level. Yet, the reading level is of those who are supposed to follow them is only at the 4th ­ 6th grade level.

You can screen candidates in the interview, but you may not be able to assess their reading and writing ability.

You can ask them to complete a job application, but did they fill it out themselves? One thing you can insist on is that they fill it out in your offices and not take it with them. This prevents someone else from filling it out for them.

Are you ready to change your procedures or are you willing to live with what Motorola discovered? Remember, EFL does not guarantee literacy.