Changing Work, Changing Literacy?
A Study of Skill Requirements and Development in a Traditional and Restructured Workplace

Work in Progress at University of California at Berkeley

by Glynda Hull

In recent years there has been much debate on whether more or fewer skills are being required of workers. Over the past three years, NCRVE and the National Center for the Study of Writing and Literacy have conducted a joint study designed to identify the literacy-related skills that are required in today's changing workplaces, and to compare the literacy requirements of "high performance" workplaces with more traditionally organized ones. The researchers--Mark Jury, Mira Katz, Kathy Schultz, Oren Ziv, and myself--studied circuit board assembly in the Silicon Valley of Northern California, a rapidly growing and highly competitive part of the electronics industry. In so doing, we identified the varied functions that reading and writing serve in such work environments, and documented ways in which industry standards and work organization, such as self-directed work teams, affect literacy requirements for a range of workers at individual companies. We determined how literacy requirements vary in these factories, given different types of work organization. And we identified the constraints that companies themselves exert on the exercise of literate abilities.

The purpose of this project was to identify in ethnographic detail the literacy-related skills that are required in today's changing workplaces, and to compare the literacy requirements of "high performance" workplaces with more traditionally organized ones. The project yielded a wealth of ethnographic data. We logged over 300 visits to two factories and collected some 500 hours of audio-taped interviews and observations and some 100 hours of video. At both factories we collected a wide range of documents, including workers' notes and drawings, quality and productivity data, meeting minutes and agendas, manufacturing process instructions, engineering changes, and assembly drawings, performance reviews and disciplinary notices, quality alerts and corrective action requests, supervisors' passdowns, inter-office memos and much more. Such data have allowed us to study literacy practices and organizational change in great detail.

Our findings include the following:

Glynda Hull is an NCRVE researcher and an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

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