SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CAREERS / THE PATCHWORK OFFICE : Improving Literacy Can Boost Worker Morale, Pay


Many companies have discovered there is one way to ensure that employees follow the rules: Make sure they know how to read them.

In California, where Department of Education surveys have shown that about 50% of the adult population is at risk of being functionally illiterate and where many employees speak English as a second language, companies are increasingly focusing on literacy in the workplace. Businesses are zeroing in on workers who are deficient in language and seeking programs to aid them.

Suzanne Seymour, executive director of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles, estimates there are at least 100 workplace literacy programs in the area. The network links volunteer tutors, schools, agencies and businesses to form literacy groups, and Seymour says she is continually being contacted by companies interested in starting a program for their employees. Five of the 25 employees at Interstate Tire Distributors in Commerce participate in what began as a pilot literacy program a year ago at the Commerce Public Library.

"We provide the environment" for the employees, says company President John Farkas. "They do all the work."

Farkas, who keeps a computer at his company so his workers can work on their skills during their breaks, says employees who have received tutoring have more confidence and "interface better with customers and with their co-workers."

Studies have shown that literacy courses not only increase worker morale, they can also increase paychecks.

Kevin Hollenbeck, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., conducted a national survey in 1994 that showed literacy programs increase employees' job skills and value to the company.

"I discovered that an employee's pay can increase anywhere from 10% to 15% after completing instruction," Hollenbeck says.

Tina Carey, a plant manager with Avery Dennison in Torrance, where literacy courses are offered in cooperation with the South Bay Adult School, sees the classes as not just an incentive to make more money, but a necessary part of staying in the workplace.

"It's my personal philosophy that in the '90s there is no guaranteed employment, so we all need to improve ourselves," she says.

Cathay Reta, literacy coordinator at the Commerce library, says workers must overcome the stigma of having problems with basic reading and writing skills.

"Because of that, we use computers as our mode of instruction," Reta says. "That way there is a feeling of 'Not only am I learning to read, but I am learning to use a computer.' "

The tutors at the library customize instruction for each individual, Reta says, and the lessons focus on reading, writing and speaking skills, using the company's vocabulary. This allows for direct application of the terms taught in class since the worker is using the language every day at work, Farkas says.

"I gave (Reta) a dictionary of work terms and she weaved them into the lesson plan," Farkas says. "Instead of talking about Jack and Jill going down the hill, which has no real meaning in today's world, they are talking about relevant issues."

South Coast Literacy Council Vice President Estelle Rosenthal says workers who speak English as a second language seem to be more comfortable about seeking out instruction.

"If there is someone who is native-born and has been through the educational system, then there seems to be more of a stigma," she says.

For that reason, the literacy council--a nonprofit organization which has 24 tutoring centers, 350 volunteer tutors and about 2,000 students--tries to provide "a very nurturing environment," Rosenthal says.

May Wen, a senior program analyst with Avco Financial Services in Irvine, says she was often embarrassed by her poor grammar and avoided speaking whenever possible.

"I didn't feel shy," says Wen, who is from Taiwan and didn't speak English well. "I just felt frustrated."

She has participated in her company's "Each One, Teach One" program, run by the literacy council, for 1 1/2 years. Now Wen stands before her peers and discusses reports.

Wen was so motivated by the improvement in her grammar that she helped start an "Each One, Teach One" program for the Parent Teacher Student Assn. at her daughter's high school in Irvine.

"The lack of language skills blocked parents from communicating with each other," Wen says. "Now we have English-speaking parents helping other parents learn."

Avco programmer Jerry Battista has been trained to tutor employees such as Wen and sees the benefits for both tutor and student.

"It gives people an opportunity to bridge the gaps between cultures and provides the mechanism for long-lasting friendships," he says.

For more information on workplace literacy programs, contact the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles at (213) 736-1307 or the South Coast Literacy Council at (714) 455-9395.

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