An investigation of the literacy and numeracy requirements and demands of entry-level supermarket work
The nature and role of workplace literacy and numeracy are the subject of considerable debate (Baker, 1998; Castleton, 2002; Gee & Lankshear, 1997; Hull, 1997; Jackson, 2000; Marr & Hagston, 2007). The debate in New Zealand, (as in many other countries), is taking place amid concerns about the adequacy of the skills of its workforce and the latter’s ability to meet future demands of everyday work and life (Tertiary Education Commission, 2008). These concerns have resulted in major investment at a national level in a Skills Strategy (New Zealand Government, 2008) with particular emphasis on improving adult literacy and numeracy levels. However, Castleton (2002) suggests that conceptualising literacy as a skill ignores the reality of workplaces which, she suggests, consist of communities of workers who engage in purposeful communication and who possess and use different skills and knowledge in complementary ways, while Hull (1997) believes that too great an emphasis is placed on literacy, particularly in low skilled work. I teach on a programme for students with limited English literacy and numeracy proficiency. A common entry point into the workforce for current and past learners from the programme is entry-level supermarket work. However there is limited information available about the literacy and numeracy pre-requisites for this type of work or the literacy and numeracy demands placed on those in employment. In seeking to contribute to the body of knowledge about low skilled work in general and entry-level supermarket work in particular, research was carried out in a large, busy, suburban supermarket. The study was underpinned by the belief that both literacy and numeracy are social practices which cannot be separated from the contexts in which they occur. It adopted an ethnographic approach and was conducted through semi-structured interviews with supermarket managers and entry-level workers/supermarket assistants; observation of assistants during induction and at work; and analysis of some significant supermarket documentation. Findings indicate that, while literacy and numeracy are generally not considered to be important pre-requisites for entry-level supermarket work, supermarket assistants are exposed to highly context-specific literacy texts and ‘embedded’ and invisible numeracy demands at induction and during parts of their working day. The findings have significance for the teaching of literacy and numeracy in vocational training programmes. They indicate that off-site programmes have an important role to play in providing a learning foundation but also point to the importance of, and need for, workplace-specific, on-the-job literacy and numeracy training.