Jennifer Geiger

Jennifer Geiger

There has been much discussion at the state level recently about the need to improve Maine’s work force in order to attract businesses to our state and build our economy.

The focus has been on increasing technical training. But, for many, there is a more basic educational need that could have a significant impact on work force productivity.

If you are a business owner with an employee who is often tardy, has a high rate of absenteeism, has frequent accidents or seems to need constant supervision, it may not be poor work habits but low literacy skills that are the problem.

Reading, like other language skills, is something most of us learn at an early age. We are hardwired to pick up language skills as children. In many cases, by the time we reach adulthood the ability to communicate through the written word is so ingrained that we never notice how pervasive it is in our culture, as we constantly receive information from signs, headlines, texts, fliers, emails and on and on.

Unless you are someone who somehow missed picking up this critical skill, and must now compensate.

This can be especially difficult to do in the workplace, where written communication is a component of almost every job.

Tri-County Literacy, which serves the communities of Sagadahoc, Cumberland and Lincoln counties, has introduced a “Reading for Better Business” program to address this issue in the workplace.

Reading for Better Business reaches out to employers to offer free confidential tutoring by Tri- County Literacy volunteers for adult employees that need to improve their basic reading and writing skills. It also provides help with English language literacy for foreign-born workers.

At a recent Business Barometer meeting for downtown Bath merchants, representatives from the organization talked to business owners about how they might benefit, along with their employees, from participation in the program.

For employers, low literacy in employees can adversely impact their bottom line in multiple ways. Customer dissatisfaction can hurt their reputation and cost them repeat business. Higher accident rates can mean higher workers’ compensation insurance costs. Frequent illness can mean higher health care costs along with the cost of absenteeism. Difficulty in following or understanding instructions can derail teamwork and require increased supervision.

For the employee, aside from holding them back from success in the workplace, low literacy skills can put them in physical danger when they aren’t able to follow written safety or health instructions.

Many adults with low literacy skills are embarrassed at their shortcoming, or worried it will cause them to lose their jobs, and they try to cover. But if lack of reading and writing skills is holding back an otherwise capable and trusted employee, it is in the employer’s interest to offer to help.

Employers are often well positioned to notice if someone on their staff is struggling to complete tasks because of low literacy skills.

Some red flags to look for in an employee include a repeated failure to take notes and reliance on memory only, missing or incomplete notation, and embarrassingly poor grammar and spelling in emails and other documents.

The Reading for Better Business program can help employers to approach workers who would benefit from improved literacy skills. The free service is structured to protect the confidentiality of the participants, and help them to take their skills to the next level.

According to Tri-County Literacy research, investing in education to improve reading and writing skills can have twice the positive effect on productivity as increasing employee hours or buying equipment.

As graduation ceremonies take place next month at high schools across the state, the program offers a timely reminder of how much we all benefit from being part of an educated community. And we can all be lifetime learners. It’s never too late.

JENNIFER GEIGER is executive director of Main Street Bath.

Comments are not available on this story.