While education and immigration reform dominates the conversation, one fact goes virtually undiscussed: a significant portion of the American adult population struggles with literacy.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, reported in a 2013 survey that around 36 million American adults have trouble reading. Of those, 24 million are currently in the workforce.
That presents a significant challenge for an American education system that is already struggling to make traditional students competitive in the global economy, much less its adult learners who are already contributing.
Functionally Literate Adults Want to Improve If Given the Opportunity
But low literacy numbers do not mean a lazy or apathetic adult learning group. According to OECD, 42 percent of adults scoring at Level 1 literacy were participating in adult education initiatives. 32 percent below Level 1 were also trying to improve their skills.
Naturally, a growing proportion of these working adults are those who have recently immigrated to the US and are still in the beginning processes of acquiring English.
When two thirds of the adult struggling reader population are still employed, the challenge isn’t finding these people jobs. Instead, it’s having them stuck in entry-level positions where they can remain functionally literate without having the opportunity to move up.
“These are folks employed in entry-level jobs who are functionally literate sometimes with areas that are less developed,” said Barbara Endel, senior program director at Jobs for the Future, in a recent article in Chief Learning Officer magazine. “They’re able to function fairly well in their jobs, but the problem is they get stuck. If more professional development dollars were directed across the continuum of the workforce … you can help employees get upskilled and move up in the company.”
The Right Approach
We need to take an all-of-the-above approach to meeting this challenge. The first step is making learning opportunities easy to access. On-the-job training and classes during working hours have been shown to be particularly effective in increasing the number of adults participating.
Online learning has also boosted success rates, particularly among recently-immigrated workers. In many situations, our solutions for business and enterprise have been leveraged in many different situations for employers with significant immigrant workforces.