Making your work force smarter Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002

Roughly 91,000 individuals in Greater Columbus are considered illiterate by the national definition, according to the most recent statistics available from the national census report.

That means they can fill out a bank deposit slip and read basic signs, but they are unable to read a bus schedule well enough to determine where they want to go and how to get there. Perhaps more startling, another 36,000 Columbusites cannot read or write at all. Some of them may be working for you.

“Being unable to read is not a recognizable sign. You can’t see it on someone,” says Gina Ficociello, president of The Literacy Initiative in Columbus. “They may say, ‘I don’t have my glasses with me.’”

That is why several Central Ohio companies have created lifelong learning centers where all employees, regardless of their educational levels, can further their skills — or, in some cases, simply learn to read.

About five years ago, C.O.W. Industries, an East Side precision sheet metal machining and manufacturing company, invested $150,000 in an on-site learning center. CEO John Burns, like most Central Ohio employers these days, says it is difficult to find good workers, but the company has had lots of luck with first-generation Americans, who Burns says have great attitudes but may be limited in their abilities to read and write English. The learning center was created to address that need, as well as the total education needs of the work force.

“I think there is a direct correlation between investing in education and learning and productivity improvements,” Burns says.

Another payback comes in the form of increased morale and self-esteem. C.O.W.’s learning center provides classes from math and English training to blueprint reading. One hundred of the company’s 120 employees have participated in learning center courses.

“If you hold out for skilled employees, you will have a lot of empty positions,” says Tracie Patten of Techneglas, a South Side manufacturer, which received a 1999 Governor’s Excellence Award for its learning lab.

As technology increases in the manufacturing setting, companies require more from their employees. According to Patten, you can either tell workers to go out and get the skills they need or you can help them do it. Techneglas has taken the latter approach. By doing so, it offers several options, including tuition reimbursement and a learning lab with six computer stations available to employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One 30-year-old employee, a single mother with three boys, was only eligible for two positions when she started working at Techneglas, Patten says. After obtaining her high school diploma and spending lots of time in the learning lab, she is now eligible for 18 jobs within the company.

“If a company offers these resources, it is an amazing benefit,” Patten says. “You end up with a motivated worker. And that’s a great employee to have.”

Lori Murray ( is a freelance writer for SBN.