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Workbase Conference Auckland - Jim Anderton Speech

1 November 2001

Speech Notes - Hon Jim Anderton

Workbase Conference Auckland

Workforce Literacy: Built In Not Bolted On To The Knowledge Society

Thank you for the invitation to attend this conference.

Many people have asked me 'what has the Minister for Economic, Industry and Regional Development got to do with adult literacy?'

Surely it's an education issue. Or an issue for the voluntary sector, or immigration.

The answer is - everything - if people can't read, write, or count properly they can't function effectively in the modern workplace.

When I started visiting our regions and our cities talking to a wide range of employers I started to get a picture of significant numbers of people who can't read or do simple mathematical exercises such as addition or subtraction. Reports have indicated up to 40 per cent of the work force have some form of literacy disfunction.

Employers said to me, 'how can we hire or promote someone who can't write? Who can't read instructions, who can't operate a computer or even a calculator?'

But all of you know this. You are the champions of this issue.

You were champions of this issue when past Governments weren't as concerned or as interested as they should have been.

This issue was masked when we had a higher level of unemployment and little hope of work. In years past Government didn't have the economic incentive, let alone the humanitarian concern for people who can't read. They were left to make do, stay on benefits or remain marginalized in a grey world of under-achievement in the work place.

We have the lowest unemployment level we have had for thirteen years, - in spite of world wide recessionary conditions- and we now have skills shortages. In regions now it is not "where are the jobs" but "where are the skills".

We have unemployment in the same areas and regions where we have jobs that need doing.

Forestry for example is one industry that needs more workers. The image of the industry is men in swandris with chainsaws. In reality the industry today involves processing plants that are fully computerised and use lasers to cut the wood to accuracy levels of a fraction of a millimetre. It is hard for workers who can't read to be involved in this kind of highly complex technology.

The boat building, manufacturing and tourism industries face similar issues.

The opportunities for unleashing the economic development potential for our Maori and Pacific Island peoples are unlimited but only if we meet the challenge of literacy.

This Labour / Alliance Coalition Government is focussing on the practical barriers to growth that businesses, industries and regions face.

As part of the last budget I announced funding for three workplace literacy initiatives, including two through Workbase, one in the Hawkes Bay and the other in the Bay of Plenty.

The literacy funding from the Ministry of Economic Development for just under half a million dollars represents a contribution to the Government's Adult Literacy Strategy which is being led by Minister Marian Hobbs.

The Government is working with the various Industry Training Organisations and it is clear they see literacy as a priority as well.

Workbase documents tell us how much of a priority this is.

· Approximately one in five of adult New Zealanders is at the lowest level of literacy, and another one in four has inadequate skills. · 46% of adult New Zealanders are unable to read text and prose to a level sufficient for employment. · 51% struggle to read documents like manufacturers' instruction sheets, timetables, diagrams and work orders. · 49% have less numeracy than is considered adequate for the modern workplace.

Given the scale and size of this issue ITOs need to be encouraged to play their part. Many large companies such as Heinz-Wattie and others in food processing are taking matters into their own hands and providing in-house literacy training for long-standing, valuable employees. They get government support for this which we are happy to provide.

I have a vision for New Zealand.

We need to be the best small country in the world.

We want to see dynamic, growing businesses which provide jobs and incomes.

This won't happen by ignoring the barriers to people working. It won't happen if we just assume the market will solve everything. It won't be achieved if a significant proportion of our workforce can't read.

I have completed 42 regional visits, been part of 21 regional partnerships, established five industry and regional working groups and seen Industry New Zealand award 300 Enterprise awards and 30 Business Growth Awards.

I have seen some of the fantastic and ideas and successes or people around the country.

Without question New Zealanders are innovative and creative.

· Bruce McLaren
· John Britten
· Fisher and Paykel
· Ernest Rutherford
· Angus Tait

New Zealanders have the ability to be creative like no other nation on earth.

When I met the Prime Minister of Singapore he told me he envied New Zealand. He envied us because of our ability to innovate.

People who can't read aren't necessarily unintelligent. From two of your Workbase documents, "Everybody's Business" and "Voices from the Workplace". I noted the ingenious ways in which people hide their literacy problems.

This creativity needs to be harnessed!

People who can memorise entire car manuals, who can fool co-workers, employers and family members for years, and can negotiate and sign contracts without being able to read need to employ these talents to creating jobs and innovating new products.

Another issue is that poor literacy is concentrated in certain sections of our community.

People with low literacy have low incomes, lower participation in the labour force and higher levels of unemployment then the rest of the population. Maori and Pacific people, older adults and those for whom English is not their first language are over-represented amongst those with lower literacy.

If this is to be the best small country in the world we need to ensure everyone can participate.

The idea that generates $1 billion and 1,000 new jobs could come from anyone. Anyone that is who has the skills and opportunity to come up with the idea.

We need to ensure these ideas can flourish.

I want to thank you again for inviting me to speak, but really for undertaking the important work that you do.

Ends


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