The United States is NOT a literacy superpower

A recently released report makes it very clear that U.S. workers don’t just lack job skills.  The ProLiteracy President’s State of Adult Literacy 2006 report, based on the survey released in December 2005 by the U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics, spells out a very bleak forecast for employers hoping those dark Perfect Labor Storm clouds will just blow by.

Each day ninety-nine percent of all workers perform some reading-related work.  The amount of information the average adult in the U.S. is exposed to daily has increased exponentially in the past 50 years.  We multitask at work and at home; television news "crawls" across our screens 24-7.  Text messages about world news, financial markets, sporting event scores and even the weather  alert us all day – and night – long.

But nearly half the population can barely read.  According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) study with results released in December 2005, only 13 percent of this country’s adults have English reading and comprehension skills considered to be "proficient."   This means that  after reading a pamphlet about the dangers of high blood pressure that refers to the disease as "the silent killer," 87 percent of U.S. adults could not answer correctly  the question, "According to the brochure, why is it difficult for people to know if they have high blood pressure?"

Even more astonishing are the 11 million adults in the U.S. identified as "nonliterate in English," with skills so low that these individuals could not understand enough English to take part in the assessment.  Another 29 percent have just the basic skills to complete everyday tasks, as long as the reading is short and the complexity is simple. Far too many workers cannot read and understand a newspaper article written at an eighth grade reading level or complete the type of math problem that is taught in the fourth grade. 

With employers scrambling to find skilled workers, the pool of qualified candidates shrinks exponentially when nearly half the population is functionally illiterate.

The U.S. claim that they are the breeding ground for the world’s best and brightest is nearly empty.  The U.S. outperforms only Italy in literacy and numeracy, falling behind Norway, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Canada in both skill areas. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL).

The only face the U.S. can save for this indictment on our society is that we’re not alone. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that there are 771 million illiterate adults in the world-one-fifth of the world’s adult population does not have "the ability to read and write, with understanding, a short, simple sentence about one’s everyday life."

For more information about literacy, education and impending trends that will change business, visit Perfect Labor Storm.


Ira S Wolfe