A report last month ranking U.S. adults below average in literacy and other areas should push educators to more effectively serve an overlooked group – working adults with low skills, who struggle in an ever more demanding global marketplace.
The Survey of Adult Skills, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is significant because its definition of literacy reflects the realities of the data-rich modern world. In addition to gauging traditional literacy and numeracy, the assessment measured the ability to “appropriately use . . . digital technology and communication tools to access, manage, integrate and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and communicate with others.”
The data are sobering. U.S. adults placed 16th out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy and 21st in numeracy. One-third of U.S. adults aged 16-24 have low math skills. This is particularly disheartening because these underprepared young people will compose the U.S. workforce for decades to come, replacing older Americans, who scored relatively well on the assessment, as they leave the workforce.
For institutions such as Pima Community College, the report reinforces the importance for our Workforce and Business Development office to keep engaging area employers and offer the training their workers need. Additionally, investment in education and training remains a crucial component at all levels of government. PCC is grateful the Arizona Legislature restored funding for Adult Education for 2013-14. Continued support would align legislative priorities with a key goal of Gov. Jan Brewer’s Four Cornerstones of Reform, strengthening our education system, as well as the strategic initiatives of the City of Tucson, the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Board of Regents. At the federal level, PCC will keep working closely with U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Ron Barber and others to aid efforts to create a cohesive national policy for educating workers, young and old.
It is well-established that a high school credential, while an important educational marker, is not enough to succeed in the workplace these days. Educators should have as a common goal the production of college- or career-ready adults. K-12 systems, community colleges, bachelor-degree granting institutions and workforce education services often are less coordinated than the public rightly expects them to be. Education must be aligned to ensure that students are attaining skills as well as credentials, as skills are fast becoming the ultimate, real-world measure of performance. And time is of the essence: Educators need to explore programs that can simultaneously improve the basic literacy of adults while providing industry-specific skills.
Brenda Dann-Messier, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who visited the El Pueblo Liberty Learning Center in September, says that “If adults have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology, they will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them. And that will have severe consequences for all of us.” I agree. Workforce quality is the crucial factor in the success of individual businesses and, collectively, in the U.S.’ ability to compete. Multiple pathways to academic achievement run through PCC and the nation’s community colleges. We have a unique role to play in leading the U.S. back to the top, but it will take cooperation and creativity to succeed.