Kiwi companies show leadership in literacy

Staff from two of New Zealand’s largest infrastructure companies are hooked on learning. Jacqui Gibson checks out the workplace literacy programmes at Fulton Hogan and Downer and finds they have lifted people’s confidence and benefited company culture

Construction site, Queenstown (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Construction site, Queenstown (image by Jacqui Gibson).


When Fulton Hogan labourer Shaun Wairau dropped out of high school at 14, he was convinced that learning was for other people, not him.

“I couldn’t see any reason to stay. I remember thinking there were so many other things I’d rather be doing than sitting in a classroom,” he says.

Seventeen years on, though, Wairau’s view of learning couldn’t be more different. The 31-year-old father-of-three says Fulton Hogan’s workplace literacy training pilot is the reason for his recent change of heart.

“I’m hooked on learning. Even maths is great, I love it. I do this thing called partitioning to break down numbers and make sums easier. I use it to order tonnes of asphalt at work. At home, I help my kids do their homework with it. The training’s made a huge difference in my life.”

The pilot programme, called Base Course, offered 58 employees in Auckland and Wellington one-on-one and small group tutoring in reading, writing, maths and communication at Fulton Hogan offices for two hours per week.

The six-month course was run by Edvance (in Wellington) and the Manukau Institute of Technology (in Auckland) during company time. Fulton Hogan data shows it boosted participants’ skills and confidence and helped some employees move into more senior roles and others gain more work-related qualifications.

General manager for the Central Region, Bill Caradus, is delighted with the success of the pilot programme in his region and the progress Shaun and other employees have made. Caradus believes literacy training is vital for any company with employees who missed out on the basics at school and need to catch up as adults.

“In our industry, like so many, we face a skills shortage. We need people with the basics who can read, write and comply with the health and safety legislation. Our machinery is more computerised than ever before. So, they need to understand technology. But we also need people with strong communication skills who can develop their careers and, ultimately, make the move into leadership.

Base Course helped us achieve all of that and more. It also made me see that literacy training lifts people’s confidence and with more confidence comes a better quality performance overall,” says Caradus.

Huge potential

Naomi Woodham, Fulton Hogan’s national learning and devel- opment advisor, agrees Base Course has opened her eyes to the huge potential of literacy training within the workplace. Now comes the tricky task of taking stock and looking at what to do next, she says.

“The training outcomes have been fantastic and have made a huge difference to participants,” she says. “We’d definitely like to continue with training. But fitting 40 hours of training in with our frenetic operational schedules has not been without its challenges and we’re currently analysing what we’ve learned, so we can con- sider our next steps.”

Queenstown construction site (images by Jacqui Gibson).

Queenstown construction site (images by Jacqui Gibson).


Edvance programme coordinator Bridget Farquhar believes companies have to stay focused on literacy training if they want to make a lasting, long-term difference.

“Often a pilot programme gives you a taste of what’s possible. But it’s important not to stop there. It’s important to keep the momen- tum going. And there are many ways a company can achieve that.”

First and foremost a company should continue to train and upskill staff, she says. But they can also run or organise workshops to raise

awareness of workplace literacy among company managers and relevant staff such as health and safety representatives and foremen. Improving company documentation to make sure it can be read and understood by the employees is another measure.

Embedding learning

Downer, one of the country’s largest infrastructure firms, is doing just that after successfully running two large-scale workplace literacy programmes between 2007 and 2009.

TeamWorks was a leadership programme with literacy learning embedded in it. Way2Work was for frontline workers. It aimed to boost reading, writing, maths and communications skills. More than 1800 Downer employees across New Zealand took part, making it the single largest literacy training initiative in the country.

Both programmes were a huge success, says Downer human resources general manager Chris Meade.

“We’ve seen literacy training help our foremen and supervisors improve health and safety compliance within their teams. Their maths and writing skills are much improved, which means they more accurately capture and report company data.”

She says literacy training has worked well for frontline workers too.

“Working on the roads has traditionally been seen as a low-skilled employment option for people without a strong academic background. However, in today’s workplace, employees need to be confident and competent in handling sophisticated machinery. They need to follow rigorous safety procedures. And they have to be highly productive.”

This year, Downer started embedding what they learned from their two programmes across the company as a whole.

“We’ve developed a five-year literacy strategy, as part of that effort. And we’ve set up a process of consolidating and embedding change called Nuts and Bolts,” says Meade.

Nuts and Bolts features literacy champions, located in the branches, who are trained to provide ongoing literacy support in the workplace. All literacy champions have completed their National Certificate in Adult Literacy Education (Vocational), a level five NZQA-recognised qualification, and are widely respected within Downer for their skills in the civil infrastructure industry.

“It’s their job to identify skills gaps and work alongside employees to meet those needs. We have a literacy coach, who is part of that process, too. We’re also developing job guides that can be read and understood by everyone within our organisation. Finally, we’ve set up a referral system for employees with dyslexia or needs that might be best addressed from outside the company.”

Overall, says Meade, Downer has undergone an enormous shift in culture thanks to workplace literacy training.

Tina Rose, business development manager at the Manukau Institute of Technology, believes Fulton Hogan and Downer are excellent examples of big Kiwi firms who’re making the most of workplace literacy training.

“But,” she cautions, “You don’t have to be a large business to do workplace training. Half our clients are small, medium enterprises with fewer than 100 employees.”

The key to successful training, says Rose, is having people within a business who are committed to making it work and providers who can come up with workable solutions that suit a business’s needs.

“Sometimes a contextualised upskilling programme works best. At other times working with participants to create a company’s first induction process might be a better, more sustainable approach,” Rose says.

“For us it’s about working with companies of any size to embed literacy, language and numeracy into their workplace in a way that reflects their context and that’s sustainable in the long-term.”

Join the Skills Highway

Kiwi companies are making promising inroads into the country’s poor rate of adult literacy—now there’s a website to help others do the same. The Department of Labour’s Skills Highway website profiles New Zealand businesses who’ve spent the last few years trying and testing workplace literacy training.

The website has advice, tools, case studies and tips from real workplaces which reflect the real-life experiences of employers and employees around the country.

It’s got a wealth of information and ideas about getting started from big, national companies like Fletcher Construction, Downer, Spotless Services and Millennium Hotels and Resorts.

Yet it also features ideas from smaller firms like Canterbury Spinners, a yarn production business in Christchurch, on how to deliver effective training when companies are up against different shift patterns and round-the-clock operations.

Research shows about four in every 10 New Zealand employees have difficulties with reading, maths and communication.

New Zealand’s poor adult literacy rates have long been considered a serious issue that costs business through accidents and injuries, high wastage, mistakes, missed deadlines and low productivity.

Skills Highway can be found at:

This story was first published in Employment Today magazine.