Literacy and structural adjustment: Sustaining local communities in global economies

Year: 2008

Author: Farrell, Lesley

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The aim of this paper is to analyse what kinds of work-related literacy demands structural adjustment places on local and regional communities and to consider what might constitute innovative, and socially, economically and environmentally sustainable, strategic approaches to those demands.

In the context of this discussion structural adjustment refers to 'changes in the size and make-up of an economy in terms of the distribution of activity and resources among firms, industries and regions (McColl and Young 2005).' Structural adjustment occurs when existing industries, or work practices, are no longer sustainable because of economic, social or environmental changes. In Australia at present structural adjustment is especially acute in rural and regional communities which rely on irrigation for food production and processing for a domestic market. Pressures on those communities include the development of global agri-businesses and dramatic restriction of water for irrigation, and the perceived shortage of appropriately skilled labour to support existing and emerging industrial innovation. Structural adjustment of the kind that is or will soon be occurring in these communities is often understood to adversely affect those already most disadvantaged in a community (indigenous people, migrants, refugees, older workers with little formal education, young people who have little formal education and little or no work experience) often because of their assessed low literacy levels and their perceived inability to meet the escalating literacy demands of contemporary global economic activity.

It has become axiomatic that Australia (and, indeed, most of the developed world) is facing a 'skills shortage'. It is, however, generally a hopeless cause to use workforce education to try and bring skills into balance with what the market (or a particular segment of the market) needs or thinks it needs at a particular time (Shah and Burke 2006). Sophisticated literacy skills are often regarded as a critical means of quickly and efficiently bridging the gap between the skills people have and the skills they need. The contemporary globalising economy relies heavily on a literate workforce which has both control of standardised forms and the capacity to innovate to meet local conditions as they arise. Work-related literacy education is, therefore, a significant element in industry policy at local, national and international levels although specific reference to work-related literacy policy is rare.Work-related literacy education, in terms of both policy and provision, is shaped by globalisation from above (Appadurai 2000) in ways that we now take for granted, although they are not straightforward. It is frequently suspended between the perceived need for generic literacy skills that have global relevance and can be transferred between firms, geographical locations, and even industries, and the perceived (and often urgent) need for highly customised literacy skills and capacities that local employers and firms experience (Farrell 2006, Farrell and Fenwick 2007).

I argue here that we need to understand the potential of workforce literacy education, and the tugs and synergies between the global and the local, in more complex ways if we are to realise its capacity leverage global networks at local sites, rather than to respond uncritically to urgent calls fitting people to standardized processes, migration routes, consumption patterns and knowledge protocols. Specifically, we need to understand workforce education in terms of dynamic interactions between local relational networks defined by territory and global networks defined by production, within the context of various regional governance structures that are in a constant state of change (Coe, Hess et al. 2004, 2006).

A significant dimension of 'the local' within this context is the local ecological environment, and the distinctive ways in which global climate change impacts on local environmental conditions, the industries that can operate within these contexts and the knowledge that is needed to conduct those industries in environmentally, socially and economically sustainable ways. While workforce literacy education sometimes has a role in responding to these pressures I also want to consider its role in leading the articulation of the problem and the search for new solutions.

My argument is that we require a fundamental re-conceptualisation of the role of work-related literacy education if it is to support and connect local communities as they engage in dynamic interaction with global networks of production within a context of relatively fluid regional governance structures. I explore the argument through an examination of a case study community - the City of Greater Shepparton. The challenges facing the City of Greater Shepparton are typical of those facing local communities in Australia and around the world. Shepparton , with a population of 61,420 people (2006 census) is situated within the principal food growing area of Australia. Food processing accounts for half the region's turnover. Increasingly, agricultural businesses are and will need to be integrated into global economic activity. If they are to be globally competitive they will rely progressively more on Information and Communications Technologies and on the overall technologisation of many work practices in line with the demands of global agri-businesses. This transition will require a differently skilled labour force. A serious problem identified by the community is that, while the overall population of the region is increasing it is also aging as young people move to the cities for education and employment. Thus, while the population is increasing, the available local labour force is decreasing. Paradoxically, there are still unacceptably high numbers of long-term unemployed, especially amongst youth, those over fifty years of age, Aboriginal adults, those from non English speaking backgrounds (25% of the population in 2006), ex-offenders and the disabled. Indigenous unemployment is high (80% in the Goulburn Valley Region as a whole).

How can communities like Shepparton develop work-related literacy education approaches that meet current needs but, importantly, predict and address emerging literacy demands so that the local community is well placed to respond to the opportunities and challenges of the future?