Optimism drives workplace literacy director

One of Decoda Literacy Solutions’ key values is optimism. It’s a combination of:

  • believing in the potential of people to succeed in their lives,
  • taking a strengths-based approach to our relationships and work,
  • and focusing on getting results and providing a relevant workable solution.

Optimism is an important part of recovering from job loss and moving forward to new work.

As Decoda’s Director of Adult and Workplace Learning, Heather Deal brings diverse experience, a love of connecting to people, and her optimistic outlook to helping people prepare to find work in today’s changing workforce landscape.

Workers’ untapped resources

“As the economy is evolving with big changes like mill closures, oil and gas industry slowdown, and the pressures of automation – there are generations of workers left behind,” she says. “These workers have many untapped resources, and their perceived low literacy is often largely due to a lack of confidence.”

She knows that every person has valued experience, and they just might need a little help to recognize it and take the next step to gain some new skills.

Displaced Workers project

That’s why she is passionate about Decoda’s Enhancing Displaced Workers’ Literacy and Essential Skills (LES) Project. It’s a three-year federally-funded project designed to:

  • research LES programs that currently exist,
  • evaluate program effectiveness,
  • find gaps in the LES of displaced workers,
  • develop promising practices and programs to support Canadian workers who have been displaced from their jobs.

Heather works with partner Social Research and Demonstration Corporation to develop surveys, produce case studies, coordinate beta-testing of community programs in four provinces, and support the 10 BC organizations that lead the project in their own communities.

The project is in its third year and they’ve already learned a lot.

Case studies

In 2020, nine case studies were written by BC community organizations to demonstrate real people’s lived experiences. They tell the stories of how workers, their families and entire communities in BC have been impacted by major job loss and the literacy and essential skills supports and training that could help them find new employment.

Heather met the subject of one case study when she visited Autumn Services in Fraser Lake. Doug was one of 500 workers laid off from the Endako mine in in 2015. Then he lost a second job.

Through a provincial Bridging Employment Program, Doug worked on his business literacy, financial literacy and digital literacy before opening Señor Duggies Tacos and Pizzeria. Doug now employs 11 people.

“He had this personal metamorphosis. He developed the skills he needed to do what made him happy. I loved seeing him in action. He was so cheerful.”

She saw a kindred spirit – another optimist.

Elaine Storey, Executive Director at Autumn Services and author of the Fraser Lake case study says, “When I met Heather, I thought I already knew her. She has this ‘people-y’ side about her – talking through a perpetual smile and waving her arms in the air when a topic excites her. Heather is the epoxy that binds the BC Team and hers is the first smile that greets us on our monthly zoom calls. That smile saw us through eighteen months of a global pandemic, where some days it was enough to just show up on the call. Thanks, Heather for being our advocate.”

Beta-testing programs

Now in 2021, 11 beta-testing sites in four provinces are testing learning models that they hope will bring more success stories. Program themes range from driver training preparation LES and digital technology skills, to building skills among women and matching services to workers.

What we’re learning

“It’s a research project,” says Heather, “so we’re learning what works, what doesn’t work and where the gaps are. We’ve already learned that:

  • There are a lot more women in the programs that we originally expected.
  • Not everyone is looking for a full-time job – more people are looking for multiple small jobs.
  • People are exploring options to become entrepreneurs.
  • WorkBC is fabulous at helping people find jobs but there’s a step missing to get them in the door. People need the confidence to fill out the forms.
  • There is a need for wrap-around services. Programs that deal with self-esteem and personal issues.”

Teaching people

Heather says her position at Decoda is “a culmination of all my previous work. I’ve also been a student most of my life.”

Heather is a biologist who started her career in cancer research. Then, she moved on to jobs in science education for UBC continuing studies and environmental training and research for the BC government’s Watershed Restoration program and the David Suzuki Foundation.

“I wanted to teach the people on the ground. I’ve been all over the province and taught people how to restore fish habitat and delivered a five-day Forest Worker Program to hundreds of laid-off loggers and Indigenous groups.”

Creating meaningful change

Heather was a Vancouver City Councillor for 13 years and has served on multiple committees at the local, regional and federal levels of government. She was a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities board and committees for a decade.

Heather taps into her history in local government to provide government relations advice to Decoda.

“The federal government has recently added literacy to its list of indicators of poverty,” she says. “Lack of literacy can be a major player in keeping people in a cycle of poverty. Adult literacy and essential skills are key to poverty reduction.”

“My goal is to continue to raise the profile of the importance of literacy among funders, partners and decision-makers. Emphasize the link between literacy and poverty reduction, and therefore between literacy and healthy people, healthy families, healthy communities and healthy economies.”

Along the way, in all her work, the common thread has been connecting to people and unwavering optimism.

Connecting to people

“I was always listening closely to stories that are not like my own. I often find that people in small communities are some of the most fascinating and have the most to teach us.”

The teaching-helping genes and her ability to connect to people from all backgrounds may have come from her university professor father and social worker/politician mother, who worked at an employment centre.

“I have huge respect for all the nonprofit service organizations that are dedicated to helping the people in their community.”

When Heather’s not serving on a committee herself (she’s currently chair of the Granville Island Council among others), in her spare time she is as diverse as her work history.

“I’ve been a choral singer all my life and have been in the Vancouver Bach Choir since 1989. Singing fills my heart. Like most literacy people, I’m a reader and crossword puzzle enthusiast. I love camping and deserts. In nice weather, you can often find me on my bike or a sunny patio with friends. Sometimes in rainy weather, too.”

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