Why it’s time for employers to give foundation skills the attention they deserve

Today’s workplace and employer expectations have exposed a challenge in skill supply, and there’s an understanding that the root of the problem is a lack of foundation skills.

Foundation skills are the linchpin of further vocational study or workplace participation and potential advancement. They are defined as being the core skills of reading, writing, numeracy and learning, as well as the skills of digital literacy, problem solving, self-management and collaboration. In short, the skills needed to get the work done – either independently or as part of a team. 

And it’s not just young people who are at risk.

Research states that more than 7.5 million Australian adults have insufficient literacy and numeracy skills to benefit from training and/or participate fully at work. 

Some of the challenge with this situation is the prevailing view that foundation skills are really just about literacy and numeracy, which are seen by employers as skills they should be able to inherently expect of their employees. While that is an understandable viewpoint, there is a real need to address workplace literacy and numeracy, as well as the frequently labelled employability skills, which involve interpreting and responding to the needs of a specific workplace or industry.

Interpreting client needs, ordering and organising resources, responding to customer complaints, contributing to workplace innovation, developing project strategies, accurate invoicing, targeted grant applications, planning and costing rosters, calculating costs for a budget or proposal, meeting timelines. These are activities that require foundational skills of planning and organising, calculations, oral and written communication, problem solving and use of personal initiative. 

In some cases, the challenge of foundation skills is not about the individual employee’s ability, but the complexity of a process, a template or internal form, a workplace practice or the instructions provided to do the work. Considering the impact (and the benefit) of addressing workplace requirements is the other side of the challenge and is one the Reading and Writing Hotline has recently taken the opportunity to address.

In the Northern Territory, there have been numerous initiatives and projects to support core skills for learners to assist them in training participation or workplace activities. But the focus has primarily been on those at the low end of the spectrum, and minimal attention has been given to foundation skills development. 

Foundation skills are needed by those who are identified as workplace novice through to capable performer and up to (workplace) expert. Whilst compliance for a novice worker might involve ensuring their time sheet is accurately completed, for a more senior person it may be about interpreting legal documents, regulations and completing incident forms or insurance claims with accuracy and completeness. A front-line worker will need the sufficient skill to read and interpret an internal memo or instructional checklist, while the department manager is identifying the purpose, the audience and the appropriate structure to develop the documents and maintain organisational standards. All are utilising foundation skills of communication but at differing levels.

At each level of performance, there will be a demand on different foundation skills and a different level of expected outcome. Critical thinking applies to the novice who needs to choose the right tools for the task, as much as the project manager setting out a plan for multiple projects and different stakeholders.

Being proactive about identifying foundation skills in a workplace has the potential to unlock increased performance and productivity, new ideas and new ways of collaborating to achieve organisational goals. So for employers who feel that foundation skills are not their responsibility, it might be time to consider how to be part of the solution, and join employers who have seen that this is part of achieving organisational goals and advancing employee potential. 

For your convenience, here is a simple to use employer guide from the Australian Industry Group: Unlocking Workforce Potential

What can we do to support foundation skills development?

Foundation skills really are the springboard to further study and workplace success, and that’s why it’s so important business leaders, educators, policymakers and individuals recognise and address the real challenge, with the intent to bring about change.

Influencing change requires an appropriate communication channel. The core function of the Industry Skills Advisory Council NT (ISACNT) is to link industry, businesses, training organisations and government together with the aim of ensuring investment in and development of vocational education and training products is fit for Northern Territory business and workforce requirements.

You can find out more about our purpose here, but ultimately we encourage you to contact us. Addressing the foundation skills gap in the Territory starts with hearing your feedback - only then can we work towards growing local talent.