A subscriber only article in the Australian Financial Review in early March this year highlights the issues that a tight labour market and skills shortages are having on the fundamental skills people need to be effective workers and learners. Let’s give you a quick summary of the issues it raises, though.

The AFR article points out that 74 per cent of businesses are being affected in some way by low levels of literacy and numeracy according to an Ai Group report published last year. Indeed, the article reports that the Business Council of Australia’s (BCA) president Tim Reed noted “business was struggling to manage the growing issue.” “It is a real challenge for business that an increasing part of the community don’t have basic skills,” he’s reported to have said.

In its submission to the Employment White Paper late last year the BCA pointed out that with “at least 2 to 3 million adult Australians lacking some of the basic skills for modern life, we need to ensure that we maintain a focus on foundational skills in reading, writing, maths, English and digital literacy.”

Further, the BCA’s submission noted that:

“While many of the core competencies are best developed in early education, it is important that there are opportunities for disadvantaged and other Australians who may not have developed these foundational skills to have a ‘second chance’ at developing them.”

The problem starts early at school age with the AFR article reporting that “last year’s NAPLAN results found that one in five year 9 boys is functionally illiterate, while two in five Australian 15-year-olds don’t reach the minimum standard in the OECD-run Program for International Student Assessment.”

To make up for this shortfall in foundational skills providers such as Melbourne-based Learn Local education provider, Prace, offer programs to help those for those needing to enhance their foundational skills. According to the AFR’s article Libby Barker, the manager at Prace, suggests that “the solution is more co-operation between business and providers.”

“We run evening adult literacy classes for people who are in work who want to improve their literacy skills. We run digital skills programs, introduction to computers, but we also like to tailor some of our programs to specific industries,” she is quoted as saying.

This issue is by no means new, however. Indeed, the former Industry Skills Councils (ISCs) produced a report in 2011 entitled: No more excuses: an industry response to the language, literacy and numeracy challenge. And, as the AFR’s recent article points out, “the federal government previously funded the Workplace English Language and Literacy program, which ran adult education projects from 1992 until it was phased out in 2015.”

Now, “[Megan] Lilly [the Ai Group’s head of education and training] suggests any change to foundational skills policy should seek to re-introduce similar co-operative programs between business and government.” In addition, the AFR’s article reports that “The BCA has called for governments to provide free foundation-level training for all adults as well as for a skills guarantee to deliver targeted training to a greater number of people.”

The increased focus on 21st century skills and jobs means that the issue of LLN and digital literacy needs to be addressed sooner rather than later as the issue is not going to go away anytime soon – if at all. Back in 2011, the ISCs proposed:

  • “better identification of the LLN skills of learners before training, and targeted funding to address identified LLN skill gaps
  • the inclusion of clear advice on LLN skill requirements in Training Packages and/or their companion volumes
  • the implementation of a strategy to develop greater national awareness of LLN issues, including the de-stigmatisation of LLN skill development
  • an increased capacity in the VET system, and all practitioners, to support the LLN skill development needs of learners and workers
  • better-targeted solutions for building the LLN skills of workers/learners.”

Should any or all of these strategies be revisited today? Importantly, do we have – or is the sector developing – VET teachers who have the capacity of help students develop the LLN and digital skills they need?