Horticulture, refuse and recycling, building trades and civil works are amongst the areas covered by the Operations division of City Enterprises, part of Palmerston North City Council. It has 170 full-time positions, mainly based at one depot.
Human Resource Adviser Larissa Ranford says employees are a diverse mix; many staff speak English as a second language and many left school without qualifications. And it was when they were offered training opportunities in 2007 that some problems with literacy, language and numeracy became apparent.
That year, the division introduced an NZQA framework so staff could formalise their skills on the job. Once the training was underway, it became apparent that some people were being held back by poor literacy, language or numeracy.
With the help of a local provider, the support of senior management and nearly $200,000 in funding from the Tertiary Education Commission, a Foundation Skills Programme started in early 2009.
Training was also developed specifically for foremen, with literacy, language and numeracy training embedded throughout. Many of the foremen are long-time employees with extensive and valuable knowledge in the industry, but may have had limited formal education, says Larissa.
"Most have been with us for a long time, and they have high job skills and are therefore invaluable to our business. We recognised that we needed to give them skills in things like people management while still showing that we value their experience."
So far, 42 people have been involved in NZQA unit standards; 15 have completed a National Certificate and 27 are heading that way.
Constant feedback is important to the success of the programmes, says Larissa. "We realised early on that the key to gaining buy-in from staff and management was continually involving them in the implementation, seeking feedback and developing the programme accordingly."
A few challenges have been overcome along the way. For example, at one point, attendance dropped in one class because some staff had been getting annoyed at learners for taking time off. "We spoke to the staff about the value of the programme," says Larissa, "and reinforced the Operations Manager's famous quote that 'training is work'."
Learner feedback is revealing. "Personally, it is really good for me," says one. "I finished school at 13, but this is different. People are learning that they want more than a yes or no answer. Communication is improving all through the yard."
Says another: "The courses have helped overcome some of my fears, and I've taken on new challenges. While some of the course has given me a headache, it is probably a good thing."
Adds a supervisor: "I can see the effects: people are starting to fill forms out properly."
Larissa says that at first, some staff were a little reluctant to be involved, thinking they were too old to learn. "These attitudes have definitely changed - at one recent meeting, one of the older members, , dead set against the programme at the beginning, stood up to show his support. 'For god's sake,' he said. 'I've been here 30-odd years but I've stuck it out, I've turned around. I have a calculator now.'"
As a result of the training, there's less rework, more staff making suggestions, increased confidence with written communications, and a more cohesive working environment.