image source, Steve Scovell

Steve Scovell, 56, had been working at a bakery for several years when he decided to learn to read and write again.

“It was difficult at the start in terms of reading ingredients… but I got used to it.

“Then about three or four years ago I started getting quite depressed, so I went to find help.”

An estimated nine million UK adults have poor literacy skills, which could affect their job and pay prospects.

New research from non-profit consultancy Pro Bono Economics has found that a worker with literacy skills classed as “very poor” would have to work an extra 18 months in their lifetime to earn the same amount as someone with basic communication skills.

The charity said that around four million workers could receive an estimated £6bn national pay rise if their literacy skills improved.

Those workers on average earn around £1,500 less per year than they would if they had a basic level of literacy, according to the research.

image source, Getty Images

Adults with low-level literacy have limited vocabulary and cannot read lengthy texts on unfamiliar topics, which means they find it hard to do things most people take for granted – like filling out a job application.

But fortunately support was available to Steve. He was helped with his reading and writing by a charity, Read Easy, and has since found a new job with higher pay and preferable hours.

“The hourly rate is better, and it’s 8am-3pm rather than 5pm to 3am,” he says.

“My quality of life is so much better.

“I don’t think without learning to read I would have got this job.”

Jason Vit of the National Literary Trust (NTL), which worked with PBE on the study, said the findings showed “the major economic disadvantage of workers having low literacy.”

He said one of the big challenges for those workers was exclusion from jobs.

“Many require workers to read chemical labelling or have specific instructions. Increasingly, jobs that may not traditionally have required literacy now need it, as the business environment gets more literate.”

The NLT has asked companies to sign up to a pledge to tackle the issue.

“The vision for the literacy business pledge is getting businesses of all sizes to think of what they can do.

image source, Steve Scovell

He explained that some employers are focusing on adult literacy and are trying to be more literacy friendly by normalising it so employees can seek help, support and advice.

“Other businesses are looking at children and young adults, to improve their employability before they enter the workforce.

“We need businesses to be open and honest about the scale of the problem, and have an environment where workers can be open about when they struggle and can offer solutions,” he added.

For Sue Mann, who works at Blackpool Transport, improving her literacy skills was a daunting prospect at first.

“I was quite nervous and I thought, ‘God I’ll look such a fool if I fail this’.”

When she was at school, Sue felt discouraged and left with no qualifications.

“Teachers used to tell you things like, ‘you’ll always be thick’, ‘you’ll never achieve anything'”.

But after returning to learning, she took a certificate, passed the maths part 100%, and was “over the moon”.

“I thought if I can do that, I can do anything.”

Sue was encouraged by her employer to become a union learning rep – helping others to improve their skills. She believes improving her literacy has given her career a boost as well.

“It gave me the confidence to apply for jobs within my own company.”

image source, Getty Images

James Sykes says he had always “got by” with his English and Maths.

“I left school without anything really, I can’t remember exactly. I did the exams but I wasn’t interested in any of that.

“I have never been very academic, sitting in a classroom environment wasn’t for me. I just wanted to get out of school and get a job, I wanted to join the army – my whole aim in life was to be a soldier.”

His parents weren’t keen on his career choice, so James took an apprenticeship to later become a joiner. He joined the army reserves instead.

But the birth of his son eight years ago prompted him to improve his literacy skills at the age of 40.

Having recently started working for Kirklees Council as a joiner, he got help from his employer and his union to take GCSE English last year.

“I went to college and for some bizarre reason I fell into it quite nicely, it just clicked.

“I’ve never been a good speller, but I have a good command of the language and can use big words in the right places and not sound daft.”

He ended up getting a 6 in his exam – the equivalent of just above a B in the previous grading system.

“It completely blew me away, I was so shocked.”

He says improving his literacy skills will likely help him at the Territorial Army.

“It’s a tick in the box that you’ve got to have to allow you to progress, so it will potentially help me in the future with my military career.”

For more information, visit BBC Radio 5 Live’s Word Matters website or join in the conversation at #BBCWordMatters.

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