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Creating a workplace learning and skills culture in 2023

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Nearly half of adult Canadians (48%) have literacy skills that fall below a high school level, which negatively affects their ability to function at work and in their personal lives. While research shows that people with lower literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed than those with higher skills, most of these individuals are indeed successfully employed – some for decades. Many are working in health-care settings, manufacturing plants and hospitality industries, and are coping well – until changing technology or other job demands reveal the limits of their skills.

The rise of automation

Some of the country’s biggest industries, including manufacturing, food services and retail, are shifting to automation. As a result, Canadians with lower literacy skills in positions most vulnerable to automation will have limited ability to transition to other jobs. According to the Conference Board of Canada, as many as one in five jobs in Canada are at risk of being automated.

In the past, many of Canada’s employment opportunities – such as natural resource-based work – didn’t require high literacy levels. However, as businesses begin to replace manual labour with new technologies and automation, literacy skills are now essential for most jobs in Canada.

The rise of automation will affect all jobs, not just those traditionally known as low-skilled jobs. All workers will need to be adaptable lifelong learners, as even the most low-skilled jobs will require a combination of transferable and specific skills.

Estimates say that around 84% of jobs in Canada currently require the use of a computer and basic technical skills and that even low-skilled jobs increasingly require a basic level of digital literacy.

Impact on employers

Improving the literacy skills of workers has numerous benefits, not just for the individual but for employers as well. Employees with stronger literacy skills are more successful at work and contribute to an improved bottom line. According to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, on average, a one-dollar investment in training returns a benefit to the employer of $1.47. Furthermore, investments in employee skills training can translate into substantial gains in workers’ skills and job performance.

“All workers will need to be adaptable lifelong learners, as even the most low-skilled jobs will require a combination of transferable and specific skills.”

Literacy skills help employees work more accurately and efficiently, leading to better work quality, service and productivity gains. Having the skills to understand complex communication helps employees better understand instructions, warning labels and procedures. This creates fewer errors, accidents and waste – ultimately producing cost savings for the company.

Skilled employees are also more likely to feel more fulfilled at work, which leads to better job retention rates, and an improved company reputation as a great place to work.

How employers can help build their employees’ skills

Workplace skills training isn’t new, and it’s on the rise. According to Statista, the average per-employee spending on learning and development worldwide increased steadily between 2008 and 2019, but fell slightly in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 2020, employers worldwide spent on average approximately 1,270 U.S. dollars (approximately $1,700 Canadian dollars) per worker on learning and development. 

Yet 40% of working Canadians say that their company rarely or never provides them with career development support despite it being in their best interest, according to the ADP Canada Sentiment Survey. Furthermore, 39% say they would take a pay cut from another employer that offered better professional development opportunities.

If you’re ready to build a culture of learning and support literacy skills development in your workplace, consider these tips.

Man smiling while working on laptop at home.
Lead by example

Ensure that all staff understand how crucial learning is to your company. Engage senior leadership in the development of your learning culture so that employees can see that learning is important to everyone. Senior executives can be invited to training sessions or asked to facilitate seminars or lunch and learns.

Develop personalized learning plans for employees

Personalized learning plans make learning relevant to your employees. Sit down with staff and understand what their learning and career goals are. Develop a plan to help them achieve their goals. Employees become more engaged in learning on the job if they can see that it’s directly related to their career goals. If you don’t feel equipped to have career conversations with staff, consider engaging a career development professional who can provide these services.

Promote learning sharing

Increase opportunities for informal learning where employees can share knowledge and teach one another. When people are encouraged to talk about what they’re learning, they’ll be more engaged in the process and learning will become a part of your company culture and identity.

Use different learning methods

Make learning more engaging by incorporating different ways of learning. For example, use formal online learning platforms and in-person seminars or courses, but also mix in more informal lunch and learns or brainstorming sessions. Don’t forget to recognize the importance of mentoring and coaching.

Make it fun and social

When learning feels like a chore, information is less likely to be retained. Make sure your learning culture doesn’t take itself too seriously. Creating a sense of fun in training and development is great for employee engagement.

Use the right learning platform

Use a learning management system (LMS) that is user-friendly to makes it easy for staff to get started. Look for features that let employees practise skills in real-time and interact with other learners to share knowledge.

If budget is an issue, consider a platform like the ABC Skills Hub, which offers free asynchronous learning on topics such as workplace soft skills, financial and digital literacy.

Introduce a rewards program

Rewards can go a long way in supporting a learning culture. These can include soft rewards like publicly recognizing a learner’s success or hard rewards like financial incentives. Many LMSs provide badges and other virtual rewards for learning success. The rewards don’t need to be expensive, but ideally, you will want to provide a form of reward to support learning efforts and develop a culture of learning.

Take time to reflect

Too often, we complete a course or seminar and return to our jobs without a plan to incorporate what we learned into our roles. Encourage staff to think about their learning expectations before, during and after taking part in a training initiative. Discussing the benefits of new or improved skills will help both worker and manager understand how to make the most of the learning opportunity.

Measure success

Every organization is different. Try out new approaches and see how they work. Don’t just focus on online course completion and virtual classroom attendance rates as a measure of your learning culture’s success. Measure early on and throughout all kinds of learning experiences. If something isn’t having the intended impact, adapt your approach.

Alison Howard Author
Alison Howard is the Executive Director of ABC Life Literacy Canada, a non-profit organization that aims to strengthen organizations that promote adult learning.
Alison Howard Author
Alison Howard is the Executive Director of ABC Life Literacy Canada, a non-profit organization that aims to strengthen organizations that promote adult learning.
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