Struggling with basic literacy skills, a growing number of Bermudians are being thwarted at the first hurdle in their search for entry-level jobs. *MCT overseas photo
Struggling with basic literacy skills, a growing number of Bermudians are being thwarted at the first hurdle in their search for entry-level jobs. *MCT overseas photo
Bermuda is facing an adult literacy crisis with increasing numbers of job applicants unable to pass basic math and English tests for entry-level positions.

Customs, Fire and Prisons have all reported alarmingly low pass rates on their entry tests in the past year.

And local firms say the trend is reflected in the private sector as well, with some applicants unable even to complete written application forms.

BELCO says around half of the applicants for its apprenticeship programme are unable to achieve 50 per cent or higher in a math and science entry test, which it describes as “middle school level”.

Last week, Collector of Customs Winniefred Fostine-DeSilva reported that the department had not been able to find eight people out of 263 applicants who could pass its simple math and English test as well as the drug test.

Martin Law, executive director of the Bermuda Employers Council, said the private sector was facing the same challenges: “It’s not just Customs, it is across the board. We need to get education right. We’ve heard a lot of talk about it but it needs to become a reality.

 “If they can’t pass entry tests for Customs they are unlikely to meet entry requirements for other positions that are out there.”

He said employers were well within their rights to ask applicants to complete entry tests to ensure they had the basic skills to do the job.

And he said an increasing number of ‘unskilled’ jobs required writing skills as well as some math.

Kim Wilson, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, said she was aware of the extent of the problem and had identified the issue of adult literacy as “critical” to ensuring Bermudians had the necessary skills for the modern workplace. She said the Department of Labour and Training was likely to be restructured to help deal with the problem.

Minister Wilson added: “Addressing the adult literacy issue is certainly an area that has been identified by stakeholders as critical to the effective training and re-training of the workforce.”

Troy Thomas, training officer at BELCO, said the utility was inundated with applications for its apprenticeship programme.

Several of the applicants could be weeded out immediately because they hadn’t filled in forms properly and as many as 50 per cent failed the entry test: “The grades have been progressively lower over the years but then we always do get some who push out good marks.”

He said the utility only had four positions and around 80 applicants. BELCO will work with some who showed potential, even if they failed the test, but had to rule out those who couldn’t score 50 per cent or more.

Alex DeCouto, who runs Greymane Construction and is the Bermuda Democratic Alliance’s spokesman on labour, said the construction industry was facing similar issues.

“Many of the entry-level candidates come poorly lacking in written and math skills.

“Applications are generally in chicken scratch, or come in via email in barely legible ‘text talk’ with spelling errors.”

He said it hadn’t mattered when times were good and jobs were plentiful. But the shrinking economy meant businesses were now more discerning about whom they hired and what skills they required.

Chicken scratch

“Those employers with work can weed through the chicken scratch and find the quality candidate. We had over 50 applicants for a warehouse assistant last month, interviewed 12, and got ourselves a very good guy.”

Even in the restaurant industry, where there are still plenty of job vacancies, lack of education is proving a hindrance.

Phil Barnett, owner of the Island Restaurant chain, said he would always look to find a position for a Bermudian applicant who turned up on time and showed a good attitude.

But he said he had to ditch several applications because they were simply unreadable. And he warned the prospects of advancing beyond pot-washing duties were limited for those who could not read, write and communicate at a reasonable level.

Mr. Law said the prospects in Bermuda’s job market were likely to narrow for those who lacked basic skills.

“Unemployment is economy driven right now but the reemployment of unemployed persons will be affected by literacy and numeracy capabilities. If somebody has been let go they have to have the ability to step into other jobs – they have to be able to do the work.”

He urged people who had been turned down for jobs to get back to school and ‘skill up’ so they would be able to compete for positions in future.

Donna Daniels, executive director of the Adult Education Centre, said the school was seeing an increasing number of students: “Adult literacy is something this community should be looking at very closely and trying to address.”

The school had roughly 200 people in various programmes at the last academic year. Ms Daniels said it had a transformative effect on the lives of its students, enabling them to apply for jobs that were previously not open to them. She said an increasing number of unskilled jobs required at least a GED. But many of the mature students that came to the Dundonald Street facility lacked basic reading skills and needed to go through intensive programmes before they could think about going for their GED.

“Many times they come to us with significant gaps in their learning. They can progress eventually to a GED programme but they may have to go into a specialist reading programme first.”

Ms Daniels said the school designed personalized learning programmes based on the needs of each student. She said education was the most powerful tool in fighting the crime and poverty issues Bermuda was suffering: “…We are seeing a significant increase in the number of people asking for financial aid and we are aggressively seeking further contributions to keep people coming through the doors.”