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Lack of education is affecting productivity

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The following is a condensed extract from the presentation delivered by Dr Alison Cross at the seventh Annual Buxton Thompson Lecture. The Buxton High School Past Students' Foundation organised the event, which took place at the Mico University and was sponsored by Capital and Credit financial group. The lecturer, executive director of the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning, (JFLL) called for a movement "From Rhetoric to Action" in Jamaica's education system.

According to the Jamaica Productivity Centre's National Productivity Summary Report for 1972-2007, the average Jamaican worker has been producing 1.3 per cent less each year over the period.

In 2007, the sectors with the lowest productivity levels were industries which typically employ workers with lower levels of education - construction and installation, wholesale and retail, hotels and restaurant services; and agriculture, forestry and fishing. These accounted for approximately 72 per cent of total employment in the eight sectors. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Productivity Centre highlights education and skill levels as key determinants of productivity.

The imperative is clear: we must leverage and burnish the literacy and numeracy skills of our workforce. Investment in adult education and training brings immediate returns to the national economy in terms of increased productivity, profitability and ability of enterprises to introduce new technology. Fortunately, our educational system is currently undergoing a major overhaul to improve every aspect of the Jamaican school experience, and by extension, output. Our goal is 100 per cent literacy by 2030 - one we will reach if we all participate in this process.

Productivity and literacy

The relationship between productivity and the literacy capabilities of any workforce is well documented.

Statistics Canada (2007) found a clear link between investments in human capital and a country's ensuing growth and labour productivity. "A rise of one per cent in literacy scores relative to the international average is associated with an eventual 2.5 per cent relative rise in labour productivity and a 1.5 per cent rise in GDP per head."

In the document Unattached, HEART-NTA identifies 127 thousand unattached youth in Jamaica - not in school, not working, not trained ... totally unacceptable, especially in this landscape of declining worker productivity. I challenge us all to see this reality as not just grim 'quotable' statistics but rather an opportunity to move together quickly from rhetoric to action.

When we take on the huge challenge posed by low levels of literacy - we must see it as more than simply enhancing a technique of memorising letters, words and sentences. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan suggests, we should see literacy as "... a road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential".

When I speak of literacy and numeracy, I speak of the more comprehensive abilities, including reading, writing and using numbers; handling information, expressing ideas and opinions, making decisions and solving problems, as family members, as workers, as citizens and ultimately, as lifelong learners.

The concept of lifelong learning is now central to any discussion on literacy. It emphasises that learning occurs during the entire course of an individual's life. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development) through its member states sees lifelong learning as:

education and training links with employment destinations;

workplace restructuring and workplace training and retraining;

on the job and "just-in-time" training; and

continued professional development.

As Jamaica adjusts to the economic tightening, it is becoming more and more obvious that the demands of the workforce are changing, and this needs to be considered very carefully.

Poor literacy skills often surface when businesses invest in new technology, only to discover that employees do not have the requisite skills - yielding unnecessary delays and adversely affecting business.

The literacy demands of work are increasing. Staff should be able to read complicated instructional manuals, address health and safety issues, write reports, participate actively in staff meetings and operate complex equipment. The literacy skills of the employee need to match the complexity of the job.

Enhancing nat'l economy

Institutions such as HEART and JFLL, along with other training organisations, enhance the health of the national economy through the delivery of direct support to enterprise, entrepreneurs and other labour market interests. This forms a part of the enabling environment required to convert mere plans to prosperity.

Building a lifelong learning framework is a response to the increasingly rapid changes in modern societies. This includes new production methods, increased access to internet services to meet the shift towards a service economy and a knowledge economy. Nations, enterprises and individuals need to anticipate and adapt to these significant developments through steady commitment to learning for survival.

There are presently various opportunities on offer in Jamaica for skill and knowledge acquisition beyond the formal and informal education structures, namely:


on the job training

distance education

vocational training

outreach by non-governmental organisations, such as churches and other civic groups, and

part-time and full-time courses offered by universities and colleges.

My organisation - the JFLL - has developed a Workplace Education in Literacies and Life Skills (WELLS) programme, which caters to the needs of industry and service-driven enterprises and supports the quest for higher levels of productivity. Employers ultimately enhance production by sponsoring sector-specific emplo-yee training. The workers' equity is a combination of time and applied talent.

Heart Trust/NTA has developed a Workforce Improvement Programme that builds customised training courses for firms, which benefits numerous employees. Heart Trust/NTA has also continually fostered debate on lifelong learning through an active focus group.

Clearly, the advancement of literacy for life, enterprise and national development is too complex an issue for one organisation to "own" it. We, therefore, need to develop a sense of shared national responsibility, which goes further than a simple exchange of information; it calls for a market place where supply and demand come together.

The supply side consists of the vast array of knowledge, educational methods, materials, campaigns, toolkits and research, as well as experts and teachers. In a way, this is the 'easy' part, given the amount of expertise that exists right here in Jamaica. What's needed on a large scale is the creation of real demand for the offerings that exist on the supply side, particularly in the area of informal education.

Special Training Programmes

There are several training programmes within the public sector training institutions addressing illiteracy within the workforce, and extending to casualties of redundancy. The most prominent of these institutions and programmes are:

Workforce Improvement Programme - HEART/NTA

Workforce Consortium. Courses offered with the participation of trade unions for displaced and redundant workers.

Yet the problem persists, and there is much more room for action.

What do we do now to locate the issue of adult and youth learning within Lifelong Learning at the centre of the national agenda?

Stimulate a real dialogue on human development; and a future built on human dignity;

Gain commitment from governments, civil society and the private sector to join forces and find new partners beyond the educational field;

Scale up the investment in adult learning as the basis for supporting economic development, justice and democracy;

Move from planning and policies to concrete action plans, targets and monitoring;

Make literacy and adult education everybody's business.

It is said, "Adult learning turns poverty into opportunity"; and this calls for increased commitment to human freedom, strong political will, partnership building and the participation of all stakeholders in advocacy and policy designs that benefit youth and adults. Only then will countries such as Jamaica be able to move from rhetoric to concrete, purposeful and sustainable action.