Are all your employees as smart as a 5th Grader?

Sadly, the answer is no.

Our economy requires that most workers have at least some postsecondary education or occupational training to be ready for current and future jobs in the global marketplace. But, more than 88 million working age adults have at least one major educational barrier—no high school diploma, no college, or English as a Second Language (ESL) needs. With a current U.S. labor force of about 150 million (16 and older), a troubling number of prime working age adults likely will fall behind in their struggle to get higher wage jobs, or to qualify for the college courses or job training that will help them join or advance in jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

A corollary to this scenario is putting our nation in a dangerous and potentially catastrophic situation.  With so many people possessing so few skills, is government and industry dumping billions of dollars to create jobs at a level to meet the talent supply or to meet the marketplace’s demand?

Forty percent of our workforce is at a level of literacy achievement or literacy attainment that falls below what one would reasonably think would be success in a workplace.  Up to this point, many of these individuals have made it with their extraordinary and admirable adaptive strategies.  Give them an “A” for effort and imagination. We all hear and see examples of those on almost a daily basis if you have any contact with people. 

But what happens in a dislocating economy with a lot of change?  A lot of people lose their job in which they have developed those adaptive behaviors and now they are forced to find a new job.  How many employees are now being asked to fill out a job application for the first time in 10, 20, or even 30 years. That’s when literacy deficits come to the foreground and really impair a significant segment of working age adults to connect.  It's in times of disruption, of market change, when business is shifting from one market segment to another market segment or adding new product mix, that literacy deficits among workers come very fast to the foreground.

In the U.S., 30 million people over age 16 — 14 percent of the country’s adult population — don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth grade level, understand the directions on an over-the-counter cold medicine package, or “interpret” the times on a bus schedule?  How can we create jobs that will produce products and services faster and better than other countries when nearly 1 out of 7 working age adults can’t even fill out the job application?

Basic adult literacy can be defined as the ability to comprehend and use written and printed material. There are basically three types of literacy: prose, document, and quantitative.  Prose requires ability to read continuous texts like editorials, text that is written in paragraphs and discourse and long sentences.  Document literacy, on the other hand, rely on non-continuous texts.  Documents often contain just a single word or a phrase and lot of blank spaces and then they display information symbolically using graphical and special arrangements like graphs and tables and charts and so forth.  Quantitative literacy is the ability to use numbers that are embedded in either prose or documents and do something with those numbers.  By the way, this is different than numeracy literacy which, in addition to quantitative literacy skills, requires the ability to use formulas or have knowledge of algebra and geometry.  When we talk about basic literacy, we are talking about bare-bone basics – reading the time on a train schedule and understanding what it means.

Here is an example of how low we’ve placed the bar when we’re talking about basic literacy – and how many people don’t meet this standard.

Imagine yourself making a purchase  and the cashier hands you a rebate coupon.  To qualify for the rebate, the individual must write his/her name and address into the proper boxes on the form. To do this, the person must scan the document for the appropriate rows – name, street and number and PO, state and zip code.  To perform this task correctly, you have to search the coupon…this is a form of a document. You have to have some vocabulary knowledge.  You have to understand what zip code meant.  You have to understand the meaning of abbreviations like P.O. 

Incredibly, a recent study by National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that only 8% of adults in the below basic and about a little bit more than half of adults at the basic levels were able to perform a similar task successfully.  About 35% of adults were not able to provide a correct response at all. This translates to about 80 million people.  And important to note, the respondents or participants in the study were not penalized for misspelling!

What this means for employers and our nation as a whole is that about 45 percent of adults, approximately 90 million adults, in the U.S. don’t have even basic skills in reading, math, and other English skill levels to fulfill their roles as workers, according to a report released by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education. 

To make matters worse, more than two-thirds of these adults lacking basic skills fall beyond the reach of programs to help them. And Federal adult education, training, and English language programs, currently being squeezed or closed due to budget cuts, reach only about 3 million adults a year.

Our current adult education system—designed for an agrarian and industrial society—is not equipped to address this urgent national need.  Nearly 1 out of every 3 students in the U.S. drops out of high school each year. That’s more than 1.2 million people who expect to enter the workforce sometime in their life without basic literacy skills, no less any special skills.  The U.S. is the only country among the 30 OECD free-market countries where young adults are less educated than the previous generation. We are losing our competitive ground to other countries in educational attainment at time that two-thirds of all the jobs created over the next decade will require a college degree (unless our stimulus dollars go to creating low-level jobs for the sole purpose of reducing the short term unemployment rate and not long-term productivity and sustainability.

The bottom line is this: Adult low literacy be connected to almost every socio-economic issue in the United States:

  • Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $238 billion each year in the U.S. — 7 to 17 percent of all annual personal health care spending.
  • Low literacy’s effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

My advice to employers is simple. 

1. Before hiring, test candidates on basic literacy and work skills.  Sadly, education and previous employment does not ensure basic adult literacy even if the employee has somehow accommodated and adapted to perform basic tasks.

2. Test your current workforce. Identify those hard-working, well-intentioned people who not only struggle through life but also insidiously add to your costs in the form of mistakes, lower productivity, accidents and health care expenses. 

3. Ask the questions: as you adapt to new markets, will your employees be able to respond? Even if all your employees pass the basic literacy and office skills requirements, how will they perform at the intermediate and advanced levels that you will need in the future?

And finally, if not most importantly – get involved in your community.  Mentor, volunteer, and/or financially support literacy programs.  Our future depends on it.


Ira S Wolfe