The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 1992 that in many industrialized nations, the formal educational system for children is not as effective as it should be in producing adults with the literacy skills needed to meet the demands of contemporary society, particularly the world of work. Many of the young adults entering the workforce are considered lacking in basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills. According to the OECD, "functional illiteracy" is a growing problem in the workforces of many industrialized nations. 1(p. 10)
The OECD report noted that in Canada, 38 percent of adults were considered so lacking in literacy skills that they could not meet most everyday reading demands (p. 25). Officials from Germany estimated that there were between 500,000 and 3 million illiterates in Germany .(p. 40) In France, illiteracy was said to affect some 1.4 million immigrants and 1.9 million French-born persons 18 years and older. (p 28)
Newspaper articles in both the United States and England have reported in the last years large numbers of adults to be seriously lacking in literacy skills. In London, the Daily Mail of September 30, 1992 published an article stating that "Eight million Britons are so illiterate they are unable to follow up a job advent." The following year, the Los Angeles Times of September 29, 1993 reported that "...80 million Americans are deficient in the basic reading and mathematical skills needed to perform rudimentary tasks in today's society."
In addition to the general literacy problems identified by these various studies and newspaper reports, problems of specific workplace literacy were also reported by the OECD. Here, the OECD considered that the problem was not one of failing to meet literacy standards upon entrance into the workforce, but rather one in which the literacy demands of jobs in particular workplaces had changed. In this case, previously qualified workers faced new literacy demands for which they were no longer qualified. 1 (p. 13)
Better Educated Adults are More Productive for Society
While acknowledging the paucity of trustworthy data, the OECD estimated that about one-third of workers could do their jobs better if they were more literate. In one survey, about one-third of Canadian firms reported serious difficulties in introducing new technology and increasing productivity because of the poor skills of their workers. In Britain, a survey suggested that "Britain's general 'under-education' would create serious economic problems when competition with more highly-skilled nations intensified in the single European market" (The Daily Telegraph, September 30, 1992). Studies in the U. S. indicated that more highly literate personnel who use their literacy skills while performing job tasks such as automobile repair or supply clerks' jobs, may show productivity increases of as much as ten to fifteen percent.2(pp. 17-18)
Workplace Literacy Programs Can Increase Productivity Not Only
In recent years, due primarily to the now defunct National Workplace Literacy Program (NWLP) in the United States, a body of research has emerged on workplace literacy programs in which functional context methods have been used to teach English, reading and mathematics skills integrated with job knowledge. The general results of this body of research is that such programs may contribute not only to improving adult's job-related literacy and numeracy skills, but also to improved productivity on the jobs, increased reading to children at home, thereby better preparing them for and helping them in school, increased use of language and literacy skills in the community, and the decision to pursue further education.