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Essential skills assessments can support 
in-house training

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WMC by Richard Lipman
Richard Lipman is president of the Wood Manufacturing Council. For more info email rlipman@wmc-cfb.ca
On behalf of the WMC, the Conference Board of Canada undertook our study “Advanced Wood Manufacturing Sector: Human Resources Trends 
and Issues Survey”.  
It showed that recruiting and retaining workers with the right skills is critical if the sector is to maximize its potential for growth. Our firms face several human resources challenges including a lack of qualified workers, a lack of workers with updated workforce skills, and difficulty attracting new workers to replace those retiring. Businesses in the sector are taking steps to overcome these challenges, including providing more in-house training, increasing wages, and developing more flexible work arrangements.
Firms often come up against one of the most serious challenges to training for skilled positions – low levels of essential skills. Those skills deficits can also show up, and hurt productivity, in such areas as office and shop floor management etc.  WMC, with the support of industry stakeholders, created a series of essential skills assessment documents that can be used to support your in-house training efforts. The documents will help you to assess employees on five of the most important essential skills to the sector, and then grade them on the level (1-3) that they are at for each of those skills. This will allow employers to establish a baseline for the skill, determine what training is needed, and then track progress.
Essential skills are the basic skill sets needed for work, learning and life. They include the ability to read text, the capability to work with a document, writing, and the ability to do the simple math required to perform a function. They also include clear and understandable oral communication and the ability to problem-solve on the job. Working with others safely and efficiently, using computers to perform necessary tasks are 
also included.  
The study noted that businesses in advanced wood manufacturing also have difficulty hiring workers with sufficient essential skills. Survey respondents identified critical thinking and problem solving skills (81 percent), oral communication skills (46 percent), literacy skills (39 percent), numeracy skills (37 percent) and the ability to work with others (35 percent) as most difficult to find among recent hires. It indicated that several employers expressed difficulty finding new hires that have common sense, and that can understand their employer’s expectations. When asked to elaborate, employers expressed concern about several issues, including poor time management; excessive waste of materials; lack of business sense; lack of concern for profitability; and insufficient numeracy skills, specifically those related to arithmetic 
and measurement.
How can the lack of these essential skills hurt your company? The business of making wood products has changed. Technology has increased the skills requirements.  The lack of required skills can result in problems on the plant floor – whether poor quality, mistakes causing rework, disagreements over instructions or just bad attitudes – and can cause your company time, money and reputation. It often boils down to people issues – with low levels of those Essential Skills building blocks – that have to be recognized before they can be rectified. There are many potential benefits from increasing essential skills abilities.  They can include a safer workplace, lower error rates, higher productivity, greater employee retention, more versatile employees, etc.  
WMC and our delivery partners have used the essential skills assessment documents extensively as part of our 
pre-employment training programs across the country and they have been welcome additions to high school woodworking classrooms. 
Use them to support your in-house training as well.
Each of the essential skills assessment documents has an introduction that specifically defines the skill and outlines how the skill complexity levels flow.  For example, Thinking Skills look at problem solving, which involves problems that require solutions. There are four levels of complexity based on four dimensions of problem solving: the complexity of the problem, the complexity of identifying the problem, the complexity of identifying the solution steps and the complexity of assessing the solution. Reading text refers to reading material in the form of sentences or paragraphs. It generally involves reading notes, letters, memos, manuals, specifications, regulations etc. It includes forms and labels if they contain at least one paragraph, print and non-print media (for example texts on computer screens and microfiche), paragraph-
length text in charts, tables and graphs. This is the theory and reasoning behind the assessments, but to the employee/learner, they see a series of questions, specific to the wood industry – on issues or problems that they might easily 
see in their daily work.    
Numeracy is a key essential skill - we hear continuously from employers that numeracy skills are lacking. Numeracy refers to workers’ use of numbers and the requirement to think in quantitative terms. There is a distinction between workers’ use of numbers and their level of understanding of the underlying concepts involved. For example, a worker can take a number from a computer printout to put in a report without knowing how it was calculated. The level of difficulty of a task is determined by the math tasks performed and the background knowledge required.
Numerical calculation is rated within four application settings. Money math – financial transactions such as handling cash, preparing bills or making payments; scheduling or budgeting and accounting – managing time and money as resources, planning and monitoring their use, assessing best value, and reducing waste. (The difference between handling money and carrying out accounting tasks is not always clear. The definition of money math indicates the need for a transaction). Measurement and calculation – measuring and describing the physical world; and data analysis – analysis of numerical data such as an extrapolation of information, and determination of trends or statistically significant effects.
To give you an example, the complexity levels for numeracy build as follows: in Level 1, only the simplest operations are required and the operations to be used are clearly specified. Only one type of mathematical operation is used in a task.  This means that only a minimal translation is required to turn the task into a mathematical operation. All information required is provided. For Level 2, only relatively simple operations are required. The specific operations to be performed may not be clearly specified. Tasks involve one or two types of mathematical operation. Few steps of calculation are required. Some translation may be required or the numbers needed for the solution may need to be collected from several sources. Simple formulae may be used. Complexity Level 3 tasks may require a combination of operations or multiple applications of a single operation. Several steps of calculation are required. Some translation is required but the problem is well defined. Combinations of formulae may be used. Considerable translation is required. Complexity Level 4 tasks involve multiple steps of calculation, so considerable translation is required. Finally, in Level 5, tasks involve multiple steps of calculation. Advanced mathematical techniques may be required. Numbers needed for calculations may need to be derived or estimated; approximations may need to be created in cases of uncertainty and ambiguity. Complex formulae, equations or functions may be used.
It is quite interesting to see how the experts in this field have determined complexity levels for different skills and how they identify what levels are required for different functions within a woodworking facility.  
If you would like to have one or more of the essential skills documents, simply email 
wmc@wmc-cfb.ca  and we will provide them to you.

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