Ellis Pace, 53, stands more than six feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. He's not intimidated by the huge furnace he helps operate at Simpson Investment Co.'s paper mill in Tacoma, Wash. Still, he rubs his thick hands, sighs, breathes heavily, and shakes his head as he reads a fifth-grade book called Tortoiseshell Butterfly.
Sitting next to his tutor, Arlene Greer, in a tiny booth formed by orange-colored wall dividers, he dons earphones and listens to a taped reading of the book. Just a few hundred yards from this temporary building, the five chimneys of Simpson Tacoma Kraft Co.'s factory belch forth the steam that produces what's known as "the aroma of Tacoma." Pace turns back to page one and nervously tries the first few paragraphs. Most sentences flow smoothly, but some words trip him up.
"The butterfly comes out when it is summer."
"No," comes a barely audible admonishment from his tutor.
"...when it is sunny."
"Good!" comes the gentle praise.
"Look at the pretty paintings on its wings...No, that doesn't make sense. Look at the pretty patterns on its wings."
"I usually do better than this," Pace laughs.
Just three months earlier, at his first session with Greer, he had trouble with first-grade books. Now, after 18 hours of instruction, he has passed the fourth-grade level.
Pace is one of about 400 Simpson employees who are having remarkable success overcoming an entrenched problem in the American workplace: adult illiteracy. In the U.S., 50% of industrial workers can't read above the fourth-grade level. As more companies trim middle management and press for more productivity and innovation from the shop floor, illiteracy is becoming a critical business issue.
Simpson, a 103-year-old privately owned company based in Seattle that employs 7,600 in 3 sawmills, 11 paper mills, and other businesses across the country, ran up against the illiteracy problem in 1987. That's when it started to push for world-class manufacturing standards in its timber group. A key tactic was to use quality programs and employee involvement. But workers who had poor reading skills balked. "When you talked to these people in the sawmills, they could tell you very clearly what was wrong," says Barbara W. Hinck, Simpson's literacy-program manager. "But when you got them in a small room with charts on the wall, some of them acted like they wanted to be swallowed up by the woodwork."
JEERING CROWDS. Modernization made illiteracy an issue at the mill where Pace works. A towering landmark on the flatlands along Tacoma's waterfront, the plant makes the brown paper used for grocery bags. To make the mill more competitive, the parent company poured $100 million into new equipment over three years. "Everything we have is high-tech," says Don Johnson, the manager. "An individual who works here doesn't stand a chance unless he has the ability to read."
Nobody knows that better than Ellis Pace. He has been at the mill for 31 years but hasn't advanced in 19 years. He shakes his head, remembering the ridicule of his classmates when he was growing up near Yakima, Wash. His mother and stepfather were illiterate, and his grades were so low he wasn't allowed to play school sports. He dropped out after eighth grade.
Finding a teaching program that would work with students such as Pace proved surprisingly difficult.
J. Paul Everett, then head of Simpson Timber's operations-improvement program, was dismayed when he began looking for a reading program in the late 1980s. Most were so slow that many students would get frustrated and quit. According to the U.S. Education Dept., it takes 100 hours of instruction in such programs to advance one grade level.
In 1989, Everett discovered Dee Tad- lock, who had developed a fundamentally different system of teaching reading. Back in 1977, Tadlock had nearly completed her doctorate when her own son, Kyle, began having trouble learning to read. She launched into a study of how the brain changes as it learns. What she found in the next three years changed her philosophy on education.
Most people with reading problems, Tadlock found, have faulty learning methods. "Your brain has an instruction sheet for reading. If it has mistakes in it, it can change," says Tadlock. "The brain is a magnificent learning ma- chine." Many poor readers are bright, with incredible memories and other coping mechanisms. An overemphasis on phonics, or sounding out words, she says, has kept them from grasping the meaning of the sentences they see.
STUDENT LEADERS. So Tadlock developed a new method, which she calls Read Right, that works without phonics, costly computers, or flash cards. Instead, students listen to taped readings of books at an appropriate level until they can smoothly and flawlessly read each sentence. If they stumble over a word, tutors don't ask them to sound it out. They coach, rather than teach, letting the student take the lead. They'll ask: "Does that make sense?" or "Does that sound right?" Simpson pays Read Right Systems, based in Shelton, Wash., as a consultant, but the tutors are all volunteers from the community, including some workers at the mill. Ellis Pace's teacher, Arlene Greer, is a housewife whose husband retired from a job at the mill.
Simpson was the first manufacturer to try Read Right, starting in January, 1990. It liked the results. On average, students advance one grade level for every eight hours of instruction--12 times as fast as the national average. After rave reviews from initial projects at three wood-products plants, Simpson expanded the program to its plastic pipe and pulp and paper mills, including Tacoma Kraft. Boeing, Weyerhauser, and two other companies are also trying the program.
Simpson pays its employees to come to the recruitment sessions and reading assessments. But after that, it's voluntary, unpaid--and confidential. Since January, 1990, Simpson has brought Read Right to employees at 14 locations in five states. Their success was featured last September in Tom Peters' newsletter, On Achieving Excellence.
Like the other students, Pace spent years working around his illiteracy. Not being able to read was certainly an inconvenience, but he could still function at work. Even before the mill's modernization, however, lack of education had held him back: Because he couldn't read manuals or daily work orders, he was never promoted from assistant to furnace operator. He really began to feel the burden of his illiteracy a few years ago, when he and five colleagues were sent to a course to get their boiler licenses. When Pace admitted he couldn't read, he was pulled out. "The other five were over there studying their books, and I was over here alone," he recalls. "That hurt deeply."
HEALING THE WOUNDS. This July, he knows they'll automate the furnace work, eliminating three out of six jobs. He has enough seniority that he won't be laid off, but he worries he may be sidelined--taken out of production entirely, perhaps to become a janitor.
Learning to read will not guarantee that Pace can keep his job. But it has already made his daily life easier. He can read recipes now and street signs. Others who have completed the program, gaining college-level reading skills, find they now enjoy reading things that until lately intimidated them. Such rapid progress helps heal wounded self-esteem and build confidence. "People who can't read are emotionally damaged because of it," says Hinck. "It takes a lot of courage to sign up for an assessment."
For management, there's no hesitation about investing in workers such as Pace. "What's expensive is not doing it. We're a $200 million-a-year operation," says Johnson, the Tacoma plant manager. "We can't afford to be wrong even 5% of the time."
For those who have coped all their lives with the embarrassing handicap of illiteracy, the tutoring program means even more. "I'm not sure what it's done for the company," says Pace. "It's sure done a lot for me."