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Marco Maree | 10 May 2023

This article has not been written or solicited by Creamer Media and has been supplied by the author.

Quality adult education and training (AET) remains even more relevant today than before. It is a means by which the country’s more than 4,4 million functionally illiterate adults, many of whom are of working age, can be equipped with the skills that they need to meaningfully participate in society and a modern economy.

So says Marco Maree, Expert Training & Development Advisor, of Triple E Training, a leading provider of adult literacy and numeracy training.

“According to the World Literacy Foundation (WLF), the cost of illiteracy in an emerging economy, such as South Africa, is 1,2% of its gross-domestic product (GDP). This is a significant burden that we bear as a country. Yet, there is no coordinated approach to address the problem which is being exacerbated by the deteriorating quality of literacy education that learners are receiving at school. According to a recent study by the University of Pretoria, it is estimated that it will take more than 80 years from now until all Grade 4 children in South Africa can read for meaning. Decades have been lost in educational outcomes due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the back of an already dismal performance by our schools in terms of literacy education.

Therefore, more individuals will drop out because they have fallen behind and cannot cope or, in other instances, complete their schooling with the absolute bare minimum in terms of literacy skills. Our assessments of the communication and numeracy skills of many employees who have completed matric show that they are significantly below standard. Many of these individuals are barely able to read for meaning or do basic maths. Worryingly, less than 30% of all matric students take maths as a subject and only half of them pass their exams. Meanwhile, Grade 12 English second language learners of former model C schools have English literacy skills profiles that are equivalent to that of Grade 10. The English literacy skills of workers who attended township schools are even lower. They have an English literacy profile equal to that of Grade 8,” Maree says.

One of the ways that illiteracy negatively impacts the economy is through lost company productivity and profitability. For example, unnecessary costs are incurred repairing orders; customers are lost due to poor communication; and time wasted resolving internal problems due to miscommunication and misunderstandings.

According to the WLF’s The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy report, 70% of respondents to its survey reported noticeable improvements in business performance due to language and literacy training.

Maree corroborates these findings. The company’s enterprising clients mainly invest in AET because it equips their employees with the workplace literacy skills that they need to perform at their peak. This is over-and-above the substantial contribution that adult literacy and numeracy training also makes towards companies’ Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment scorecards. While this is an important consideration, it is certainly not the only reason that companies should continue to invest in AET as this is simply box ticking – “training for just the sake of it”.

Rather, AET should be viewed as a critical part of skills development and training programmes and its effects on business performance measured. This is through a reduction in misunderstandings in the workplace that lead to waste, lost time, tension and accidents; improved morale and engagement levels; and better teamwork and cohesion. There are also other benefits of AET, such as high staff morale, engagement and retention.

Importantly, employees who have foundational literacy skills are also able to continue learning to hone and refine existing or acquire new proficiencies. This includes digital literacy, which companies need to compete effectively in the global economy.

The WLF report warns that countries with high illiteracy levels will have lower technology skills capacity in future. It notes that citizens who possess high functional literacy skills are valuable human capital to their economies.

Maree says, “In a modern economy, literacy transcends merely being able to read, write and calculate. Today, it also involves the ability to create, edit and read documents on an electronic device, such as a computer, at the very basic level. People who cannot read, write and perform simple calculations will struggle to acquire digital literacy skills. Many of our clients enrol their employees in our AET programmes because they want their unskilled employees to be able to start working with computers and other digital technologies.”

In South Africa, high illiteracy is also fuelling unemployment and poverty, another serious drain on the economy.

If they are able to secure jobs with their limited basic skills, illiterate people perform unskilled work and can, therefore, earn between 32% and 42% less than their literate counterparts. Because they do not have foundational skills, their ability to continue learning so that they can improve their earning potential is also restricted. According to the WLF report, adults who have not completed primary school are less likely to secure employment that will enable them to avoid poverty. This is very apparent in South Africa where an oversupply of unskilled labour and shortage of high-level skills has resulted in large differences in wages. This, together with high unemployment, is a major contributor to rising inequality.

Triple E Training continues to provide AET in poor communities where there are high levels of unemployment and illiteracy. This training is undertaken on behalf of companies as part of their corporate-social investment initiatives with the intention of equipping participants in these programmes with employability skills.

However, as Maree notes, these, combined with state driven AET programmes and those of non-government organisations and universities, are barely making a real impact on the illiteracy crisis with which the country continues to grapple.

It is also in these areas where the cost of illiteracy in social terms are especially noticeable and bring to the fore the urgency of the situation. Among others, this includes poor household and personal health, hygiene and nutrition, as well as an increase in crime, which are also a drain on the economy. Many of these community members are also very dependent upon welfare for survival because they are unemployed or can only perform general and mundane work with wages that barely cover the cost of living.

“It is clear that South Africa needs to broaden the reach of its AET programmes. This effort needs to be coordinated between government, the private sector and other actors, with clear targets and actions to make a real difference,” Maree concludes.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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