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National Center for Adult Literacy Researchers Argue that 1 in 3 Massachusetts Workers Will Sink in the New Economy

More than a third (1.1 million) of Massachusetts's 3.2 million workers are ill-equipped to meet the demands of the state's rapidly changing economy. This threatens the state's ability to sustain the current economic boom and traps the workers themselves in jobs with little opportunity to advance, according to New Skills for a New Economy, a new study based on over two years of research conducted at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's National Center for Adult Literacy and Learning (NCSALL) and Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.

The most startling finding of the report, released by the nonpartisan think-tank, MassINC (The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth), is that 667,000 of the 1.1 million at-risk workers have earned a high school credential but still lack basic math, reading, writing, language, and analytic skills at the level considered acceptable for the typical 21st century workplace. This one group represents 20 percent of the state's workforce, thus posing a significant "New Literacy Challenge" for the Commonwealth.

Recommended Responses

The report argues strongly for the creation of a new system of partnerships between the state's 15 community colleges and local companies to upgrade the skills of the 667,000 workers comprising this "New Literacy Challenge." In addition, the report takes a hard look at the Adult Basic Education (ABE) system at the state Department of Education (DOE) and calls for a series of reforms, new investments, and accountability measures.

"The main literacy problem of workers in this state is not that of illiteracy in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a problem of limited skills that restrict workers' ability to take on the complicated duties that are required in varying degrees of all workers in the New Economy," state co-authors John Comings of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Andrew Sum of Northeastern University. "To secure a middle-class job, workers must be able to solve complex problems, think critically, communicate in English effectively, and use computers and other technology. Over the coming decades, expectations will only increase."

Redefining 'Literacy' for a New Age

In reaching these conclusions, the report uses a new literacy standard that has been widely adopted by labor market experts and others, including the National Governors' Association. The new standard replaces a narrower, outdated definition of literacy under which the ability to sign one's name or read words was sufficient to classify a person as literate.

For example, under the new standard based on the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), a production worker who could not adjust the controls of an assembly machine by identifying two pieces of data from a simple bar graph displayed on a video monitor, would be classified as lacking the necessary literacy level for the New Economy, and so would be counted as part of the 667,000 workers comprising the "New Literacy Challenge."

Other Challenges

The report goes on to describe two other "Challenges" composed of two large groups of workers, each with distinct problems:

  • First, researchers documented a "Language Challenge" based on the presence of 195,000 immigrant workers with severely limited English speaking skills.
  • Second, researchers uncovered a surprisingly large number of workers who have never obtained a high school degree--an additional 280,000 workers face what is termed an "Education Credential" Challenge.

To address the needs of these two groups, the report recommends the creation of an expanded, more accountable, and more coordinated Adult Basic Education system at the state Department of Education. It also recommends a new strategic alliance between government, businesses, unions, non-profits, and foundations to bolster the quality and quantity of ABE opportunities in the state.

In particular, the report finds that progress in tackling the "Language Challenge" and the "Education Credential Challenge" has been stymied by long waiting lists for GED classes and English language classes (ESOL). Despite a healthy increase in state funding from $4 million in 1994 to $30 million today, the statewide waiting list still hovers between 8,000 and 16,000 annually, with some candidates waiting more than a year. Researchers believe that as word has slowly spread about the "paycheck" value of classes, more workers have sought out programs. But, the report concludes that when the 25,000 students currently being served annually is compared to the 475,000 workers in need (combined amount of the 280,000 dropouts and 195,000 immigrants), it is clear that the current enrollment level is inadequate.

At-Risk Workers Represent an Untapped Resource

The three "Challenges" (Language, Education Credential, and New Literacy) are based on unduplicated counts of workers so that potential double-counting was avoided. The total combined figure of 1.1 million at-risk workers actually represents an untapped resource in a state economy that is experiencing significant shortfalls in human capital, the report argues. Over the past ten years, the Massachusetts's labor force has grown an anemic 1.5 percent, the 47th lowest growth rate in the nation. A recent New England Council report showed that one in every 12 skilled jobs remains unfilled. Better jobs are available for these 1.1 million workers, but because they lack the skills to fill these positions, employers have often been forced to look overseas for workers.

"The lack of opportunities for these workers to build their skills ought to be at the top of the list of items that state leaders are concerned about," Tripp Jones, MassINC's Executive Director, said. "Unless business, government, and community leaders come together as part of a broad-based campaign to address the issue, our economic future and our status as a Commonwealth based on shared prosperity will be in jeopardy."

The report puts forward a comprehensive strategic plan containing detailed policy reforms and a handful of targeted investment proposals, including a $16 million increase in state funding over the next two years to eliminate long waiting lists for ABE class seats and the hiring of retiring K-12 public school teachers as part-time ABE instructors.

Do Students Learn Enough to Justify the Investment?

The report also helps lay to rest a debate over whether students actually learn enough to justify increased public investment. Using DOE data, researchers were able to determine for the first time that half the students achieved learning gains and nearly one-third gained more than two grade levels. However, the current Adult Basic Education system, administered by the DOE, was also found to be falling far short of meeting the needs of today's workers in several ways:

  • Almost no classes are offered on weekends when it is often more convenient
  • Little outreach and marketing was done to reach potential candidates
  • Dropout rates were too high, with almost one in five students dropping out after only a month of instruction, and only 21 percent of students reaching 150 hours of instruction, the recommended amount needed to achieve learning gains\
  • Links between adult basic education classes and other worker training programs are weak, with workers who enter Department of Labor training programs with low skills typically not allowed into training programs and not referred to the DOE-based Adult Basic Education system, and
  • Conversely, adults who finish DOE-based Adult Basic Education classes are not routinely referred to Department of Labor-run training programs

"We currently lose the opportunity to make the most out of our training and Adult Basic Education systems," say the report authors. "People who come to training programs with low reading and math skills should automatically be offered or referred to basic skills classes. Upon completion of basic skills classes, people must be pointed toward job development, placement activities, community colleges, and other forms of training that are likely to help them earn higher wages. Right now there is far too little of this going on."

About the Report

The National Center for Adult Literacy and Learning (NCSALL) is a collaborative effort between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and World Education. Its mission is to conduct the research, development, evaluation, and dissemination needed to build effective, cost-efficient adult learning and literacy programs. NCSALL is funded by the U.S. Department of Education through its Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI).

The report was funded by a grant from the Boston FoundationMassINC is a nonpartisan research organization whose mission is to promote the growth and vitality of the state's middle class.

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