Workplace illiteracy

Sylvia Porter

November 06, 1990|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1990 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

The United States could lose its position of economic leadership to Europe or Asia before the end of this decade, slashing the standard of living for you and your children.

If that happens, it won't be caused by the Federal deficit, trade imbalances or oil shortages. It will happen, some observers say, because we have a shortfall of people in the work force with the reading, writing and math skills required for today's jobs. And, because you and I have not the resolve to call for action to maintain the productivity of the American work force.

The cost of illiteracy to business and the taxpayer is a low estimate of $20 billion a year. Yet, there is no broad national program by either government or business to reverse the situation.

Illiteracy has become a barrier in both recruiting and promoting workers, concludes a new study, "Literacy in the Work Force," issued last month by The Conference Board, an industry research organization. Nearly one-fifth of 163 large companies reported they already are having problems finding people who can read well enough to qualify for an entry-level job.

"Illiteracy has become a softly ticking time bomb across corporate America," says Dr. Leonard Lund of the Conference Board. "The evidence strongly suggests that the work force skills of many youngsters are declining at a time when new jobs are becoming increasingly sophisticated."

Yet, the report says, few companies are preparing for the rising wave of new workers whose work skills are marginal at best. More than 70 percent do not have formal procedures that test entry-level job candidates for reading and writing skills.

The two leading volunteer organizations, Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy Action, between them reach less than 150,000 learners each year. But, in addition to the millions -- 20 percent of adult Americans -- who are functionally illiterate, another 34 percent are only marginally literate, says the U.S. Department of Education.

We have opened our borders wider to immigration, to attract new workers. Meantime, what happens if we do not upgrade the skills of the workers already in our population? It is hard to escape the conclusion that the future is jeopardized for you, for business and for the nation.

Endless speeches have been made, seminars held, and committees formed. Some corporations, schools and government agencies have initiated corrective programs. To date, it still is too little and for millions of individuals, too late.

The newest initiative by business comes from the powerful Business Roundtable through its Education Task Force. It has impressive leadership (the chairman heads IBM Corporation) and has enlisted 174 chief executive officers of some of the nation's largest companies.

Its goal is to stimulate "education reform." But some observers believe the education system shares only a small portion of the blame. Illiteracy is now a problem for parents, business, the community and the government, not just for educators.

Of more immediate usefulness to business owners may be the work of the Business Council for Effective Literacy. BCEL is a "how to" organization. It reports details of successful internal programs operated by scores of corporations and small businesses. In addition to guides for on-site employee programs, fund-raising suggestions for volunteer groups, and a directory of available resources, BCEL has published an agenda for national action. (BCEL is at 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020, (212) 512-2415.)

Many experts observe that there are fewer workers employed in large firms than in small firms. The smaller companies have neither the time nor resources to conduct their own programs. Small-business owners, they recommend, should join in coalitions of concerned employers to run literacy programs.

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