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September 23, 2012
CALGARY, AB, Sep 23, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Mike was among the thousands of machinists in Alberta churning out specialized industrial equipment used in the oil sands. The pay was great and jobs were plentiful.
One day, a new piece of machinery landed on the shop floor. His supervisor tossed him the instruction manual and said, ‘It’s supposed to be a lot faster than the old machine. I don’t have time to show you how it works – read the manual and get busy. We need 10 units finished and out the door by Friday.’
Mike flipped through the manual and tossed it aside. He was alone on the shop floor, but thought ‘How much different can this one be from the old model?’ Switching it on, he heard a quiet hum and started feeding in pieces of sheet metal.
Suddenly, the machine jammed. Reaching inside as he had done a thousand times before on the old, familiar machine, he heard a horrible screech and then a crunch. Just before he passed out, he realized his left arm had been severed at the elbow.
But Mike was lucky. According to data from the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, hundreds of Albertans are killed on the job each year – and the number has risen substantially from a decade ago. Thousands more suffered serious injuries, and countless accidents went unreported.
Perhaps the reason Mike tossed the safety manual aside was that he couldn’t read it. He represents one of the 753,000 Albertans (in 2007) who do not have the literacy skills needed to function fully in today’s knowledge-based economy. That’s 40 per cent of the labour force.
Sure, Mike could read basic words, but he didn’t have the literacy skills necessary to comprehend the instruction manual for a sophisticated piece of machinery.
Literacy Alberta (along with its provincial counterparts elsewhere) promotes the importance of literacy as a serious health, safety, and economic issue. Aside from the health and safety issue at stake – which must be considered the most compelling reason why we need to ensure our workers are functionally literate – there are two significant reasons why inadequate levels of literacy are a growing economic concern in Alberta.
The first relates to labour shortages. The province is desperately short of workers, yet no one seemed to notice that dozens are killed in job-related accidents, some of them due to illiteracy. If they had possessed the reading comprehension skills to understand the safety manuals, some of those workers may be alive today. The province is bringing in thousands of overseas workers to help fill the gaps, but shouldn’t keeping the existing workers alive and healthy be part of the solution, too?
The second reason has to do with productivity. Canadian workers have been thrashed in the media by economists who worry about our country’s flagging productivity. Most of us resent being told we are unproductive – the implication is that we are lazy.
Productivity doesn’t mean chaining workers to their desks for longer hours and flogging them to work harder. Enhanced productivity means giving workers the best, most up-to-date, and most efficient tools with which to apply their trade, and letting each worker accomplish more work in less time. Economists call it capital investment.
But along with the new machines, workers need to be upgrading their skills, their knowledge, and their comprehension of how to use the new equipment. For 753,000 Albertans, that means becoming functionally literate to the point of being at least able to read and understand the instruction manuals.
The problem of illiteracy in our economy goes far beyond an inability to read. In the broader sense, illiteracy is about those workers who lack the ability to comprehend complex sentences and ideas. It is the difference between learning to read, and reading to learn.
Literacy is not a special interest group – it’s a fundamental economic necessity. This is of particular urgency in Alberta where labour shortages and faltering productivity threaten to put the brakes on the country’s fastest growing economy.
Troy Media Business Columnist Todd Hirsch is Senior Economist with ATB Financial.
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