Today’s Globe and Mail (decaying link) offers a story on college graduates who can’t read. More than half of students at US colleges and at least three-quarters of students at junior colleges “lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks such as understanding credit card offers”. As scary as those results are for colleges, they’re even more frightening for North American businesses.

Employees with poor literacy and numeracy skills cost money. They take longer to train because they can’t skim reports, training manuals, intranets and other in-house materials. Their inboxes quickly fill up with reports, memos, news releases, whitepapers and other documents key to the company’s knowledge base. Lesser literate employees take longer to read materials, find information, complete written tasks — and even program software.

Moreover, poor literacy often translates into poor writing. Many people simply avoid documenting processes, leaving the company without a knowledge base or a paper trail. The rest of the company suffers when other people have to read the reports and emails written by co-workers with less then stellar literacy skills.

And literacy’s just part of the problem. Poor numeracy means employees have trouble deciphering market statistics, financials, forecasts and budgets. The inability to do quick calculations in a meeting or during a sales call can cost a company money, time and credibility.

For companies, this means it’s important to check the literacy and numeracy of incoming employees, contract workers and consultants. Some companies administer tests, while others rely on interviews to screen candidates for their ability to think on their feet and quickly digest new information. In any case, businesses need to know they’re working with quality people. Otherwise, the bottom line may suffer.

(c) 2005 by Andrea Coutu. Vancouver Marketing Consultant. All rights reserved.