26 January, 2013

Say What? - Revisited

Remember the conversation I had in regard to horsepower and inches? Well, this is somewhat similar, but yet different. Kind of like night and day or the flip side of a coin.

One of the sad things in this country is the, in my experience anyway, is the number of illiterate people, adults especially. For someone who's earliest memories, filled with reading for sheer pleasure, it's almost impossible to imagine not being able to read, but yet having to function in the work-a-day world.

The frustrations encountered several times a day on an every day basis and the amount of  memory work absolutely required to get by in the work place, must be horrendously exhausting.

Illiteracy and the difficulties faced by both workers and those who hire them just add to the problems inherent in the workplace.

Just a simple list of common tasks to be performed every day or on some other pre-set schedule become next to impossible to manage. If you're the only one who can read it, how is that going to help the employee?

It's not a simple problem. In most cases, at least the ones I've run into, illiteracy is more a symptom of the society and not due to any mental impairment, etc. One of the big culprits seems to be widespread poverty.

It's hard for a family bringing in less than a living wage to be able to send a child to school. Yes, education from ages 6 to 14 is 'compulsory', but enforcement is another matter entirely.

Wikipedia has quite a good discussion of the Belizean educational system and some of its history ( The article does gloss over a few of the major stumbling blocks - yes, "primary education is free, but related expenses, such as uniforms, books and annual school fees are a financial strain on poor families" - makes it sound as if a little belt-tightening in the family and everything will happen as it should. Such is far from the case.

That little belt-tightening, probably means no food on the table for the whole family. Uniforms alone are a major expense, when most poor children may have at most, two or three tee shirts in the first place.

Books are another issue. There seems to be little rhyme or reason for requiring new books to be purchased each year. Transferring used texts to the next upcoming student simply isn't in the equation.

As long as I've mentioned books, Dianna reminded me about computers. Of course there's an increasing need, demand, and requirement for students to learn and become immersed in modern technology. If books are a very real struggle for families to pay for, computers, Internet connections, etc., etc., are even further, realistically, out of reach for many.

School fees seem to be never-ending. And I'm not talking simple lab fees and field trip expenses, but parents being dunned for school structural repairs and upkeep and such like that throughout the school year.

Of course, there always are a few kids whose parents find it relatively easy to pay for the additional expenses, but for many, the ongoing expenses simply dig the financial hole for the family deeper each time.

But, the state of the educational system and of the schools is not the focus of this posting. Here's what got my attention.

Illiteracy in the workplace not only forces the worker to double his/her efforts to do a job, but it forces the employer to likewise make sure that they haven't forgotten to remind the employ of something. Remember the problems of not being able to use checklists, etc? You become the employee's checklist.

Case in point... I had a few tiles that needed to be repaired. I saw my employee open a new can of what I assumed was tile adhesive, as he pulled off the plastic protective ring around the lid. I should have quickly looked at the can. The lettering was there in plain sight, all of one-and-a-half-inches high. But, instead, without even thinking about it, I guess I assumed the employee read the label and knew he had the correct materials to hand. If only that had been the case.

It didn't really come to light till after the job was finished that we began to wonder why the grout was pulling up and felt wet (this after two days). I noticed I was able to wiggle one of the tiles with no problem and water began leaking downstairs once again where it shouldn't have at all.

Finally, I got down on my hands and knees and looked at the tiles. The grout was still moist and the adhesive just didn't look right. I got a flat-bladed screwdriver and began gently to pry up one of the tiles. I knew right away I was going to need something broader than the screwdriver, a pry-bar perhaps, but generally, getting that tile up was going to be no problem whatsoever.

At that point, I decided to go back down stairs to the store room and finally read the contents of the can, which I had saved since it was not empty. I picked up the can and swung it around till the relatively large lettered contents came into view. 'Joint Compound' stared at me from the can.  Oh boy.
Easy - If You Can Read
It would be easy to take a cheap shot at the employee but that would be entirely unfair. I knew of the illiteracy and generally made sure to compensate for it as the worker is conscientious and meticulous. He's also highly skilled (for Belize) in a variety of trades, is honest and a hard worker. He's a nice guy too.

So, I knew of the deficiency and overlooked it entirely. And we suffered the consequences. No real damage done. I retrieved the tiles in question and cleaned up, the area supposed to be covered with Thinset is all cleaned and will soon be re-leveled with a new bit of PlyCem (concrete board), I'll spread actual Thinset, place the tiles and apply the grout. Not a big deal in itself.

I first thought of making light of the episode and writing another funny posting about it. But, that would have been unfair to a valuable employee. It's not his fault the can contained the wrong stuff.

Oh, sure, we can say, "But didn't he notice the wrong stuff was in the can"? Well, maybe. But, maybe he noticed and thought something like "Oh, this looks a lot like joint compound. Oh well". Something like that. Who knows?

So, what I'm resolving is that I'll re-double my efforts to make sure something like this doesn't happen in the future. If I'm willing to keep employing someone who does have a lot of skills, and some deficiencies, then it's my responsibility to work to try to turn those deficiencies into positives, or to at least minimize their impact on his work.

Either way, he becomes a more valuable employee for me and I become a better employer for him. We both win.


Unknown said...

Thanks Dave for an excellent post on an important topic. Like you, I can’t imagine what a struggle it must be for those whose literacy skills are low or non-existent. I give you much credit for recognizing the strengths of your employee, nurturing those skills, and taking an active role to ensure both he and you are on the same page, so to speak. A good lesson for us all.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave Rider said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Thanks for the nice comment.

Think of having only two or three months of schooling and being taken out because work in the cane fields has to take priority so the family can eat.

That's not two or three months in one year, that's the total formal educational experience for a lifetime.

He's fully aware of what he's missed and is rightfully proud of what he has achieved throughout his life.

Imagine what he could have accomplished with even the minimum required schooling.

A Missed opportunity lasts a lifetime.


JRinSC said...

Good posting Dave... and a tough subject. I come from an area in the south that has its problems also. Not so bad but just think: My county has 29% of the people that are functionally illiterate -- 29%. I have often wondered just how you would function in today's society with that dragging you down... wow.

Like you I have enjoyed reading for as long as I can actually remember and I can't imagine what I would be like without what I've learned in my reading.

Keep up the good work. We've come back from our trip to the "Far Side of the World" and are slowly getting back up to speed. I've enjoyed reading your posts over the last month or so.

Hang in there!


Dave Rider said...

Hi Julian,

Welcome back Cobber. Are you fluent in 'Strine' now?

Thanks for the nice comments.


JRinSC said...

Yep, we say Goodday Mate quite often.

You know, my favorite things were the different ways the Aussies and New Zealanders manage to say some real common things - especially road sign. My all time winner is the common red triangle where we think to see YIELD. Nope -- they have


same idea but done differently. We saw several other examples but that was the best one. Tyres didn't look quite right either or a "removal service", which looked like it might have been a moving company.

And the driving -- and all the round-abouts - they love 'em!! As our taxi driver told me.. you Americans may drive on the right side of the road but we drive on the "Correct" side of the road... lol.


Dave Rider said...

Hi Julian,

In London, what got me was 'Mind the Gap' in the tube stations, and 'lay-by' on the motorways.

We may speak the same language, but then again...

In Olympia, they went nuts for round-a-bouts. I like them, if done right. In Oly, they tended to place them in an area that was about 1/4 the size it should have been.