It’s the company best known for its moving Christmas adverts and for dubbing its employees ‘partners’, but will John Lewis now become known as the first major corporate to speak up on inadequate literacy skills among adult workers?
This week, the company’s chair, Sharon White, has said literacy lessons will now be provided to staff, in a bid to make up for failings in the education system.
While it may have been a huge headline grabber in the UK, and sparked no end of social media debate, should we really have been so surprised that an employer of this scale might conclude that more educational development and support was needed for many of its recruits?
Sadly, we don’t think so.
With our business rooted in recognising inadequate literacy levels, and in seeing the progressive impact throughout school lives and beyond, we know only too well how frustrated and concerned a great number of employers have been for many years.
Indeed, according to the National Literacy Trust, some 16.4% of adults (around 7 million) in the UK have ‘very poor literacy skills’.
So while this all points to the ‘problem’, what should be regarded as the solution, particularly at a time of such seismic change in the way in which businesses are operating day to day, and when companies will be desperate to claw themselves back into profitability post-pandemic.
First, business leaders need to recognise that there is likely to be a sub-standard level of literacy knowledge among some of its current workforce, and that only by aiding development of skills will they get the full potential from their staff.
While it might make bosses feel slightly better to moan that the school system is not doing a good enough job, it really gets us nowhere, and instead requires leaders to be on the front foot about identifying where employees need more help, and what they can do about that.
Our strong belief is also that schools, colleges and employers need to do more to share learnings with one another and to continuously build conversations and partnerships around how they can better prepare young people for the workplace.
In practical terms, adopting literacy learning packages designed for adult employees provides a great kickstart solution for firms.
This is perhaps even more critical in an age where increasing numbers of staff won’t be sat in an office alongside colleagues and able to learn with the guidance of fellow staff.
Our literacy programmes are perfect examples of the kind of tool which allows adults to make literacy gains quickly and independently. Designed with the adult learner in mind so as not to patronise or belittle.
And finally, key to the successful development of any education effort in the workplace, is to remember how debilitating a culture of shame or blame can and will be for all concerned.
Getting the best from a staff member who is currently struggling, should be more about agreeing a mutually agreed pathway of support and development, than allowing them to feel attacked for a skills lack they may have experienced to date.