Corporations take aim at the high cost of worker illiteracy

When Calvin Miles started working at a New York cable TV company, he was unable to read or write. No one knew, he says, because he was going to school at the time, and he could read a map, which was an important part of the job. But reading names or notices was a different story.

``One lady had left a note on the door telling me she would be in the backyard, and to come around and find her,'' he says. ``I didn't know what it said, so I just left.'' When the woman called to find out what happened, Mr. Miles told her the cable man must not have seen the note.

``Sixty percent of the people at the company probably couldn't read and were just bluffing it,'' Miles adds.

About 13 percent of American adults live like Miles used to, hiding from their employers, co-workers, and friends day after day the fact that they can't read or write. Like Miles, almost half of these adults live in central United States cities, a US Department of Education study reports.

Corporate America does not seem to know which way to turn. For one thing, technology has wiped out a lot of low-scale jobs, the kind that someone with little or no education can handle, and created many more middle- and upper-level service positions, says Lawrence Mikulecky, a professor of education at Indiana University.

``We're losing those jobs to technology and overseas production very fast. ... At some point there aren't going to be many of those left,'' says Tony Carnivale, chief economist at the American Society for Training and Development, in Alexandria, Va.

The Hudson Institute's recent Workforce 2000 report says that in 1990, for the first time in history, more than 50 percent of the jobs being created will demand post-secondary training.

``Very few new jobs will be created for those who cannot read, follow directions, and use mathematics,'' the report continues. ``Ironically, the demographic trends in the work force, coupled with the higher skill requirements of the economy, will lead to both higher and lower unemployment: more joblessness among the least-skilled and less among the most educationally advantaged.''

In other words, the fastest-growing group of new workers appears to be the least literate, with the worst access to education: ``Non-whites, women, and immigrants will make up more than five-sixths of the net additions to the work force between now and the year 2000, though they make up only about half of it today,'' the report says.

A phenomenal high school dropout rate is also pushing more than half the teen-age population out into the work force with minimal reading and writing abilities, little analytical practice, almost no understanding of how to operate a computer, and no vocational training.

Even a college diploma - received by just a fifth of young Americans - does not guarantee a high level of literacy. According to a survey in 1986 by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., 40 percent of those tested could not calculate the amount of change they should have received from a lunch, nor could 60 percent read a long-distance bus schedule.

Finding qualified people has become a challenge for the first time since World War II. ``We're on something of a collision course,'' says Dr. Carnivale, who has been studying the problem for three years. ``America's unemployment rate is headed for 5 percent, and industry will have to hire from populations we've traditionally ignored.'' This, he says, is the best part of the problem. ``People will be scarce, so these groups - minorities, women, the handicapped, and even immigrants - will finally be valued economically.''

But doing that will take time and a lot of money, Carnivale says.

One state has begun. Rhode Island just initiated a program, named Workforce 2000 after the Hudson Report, to do something about the problems outlined in the report. A council appointed by the governor will attempt to raise $3 million to $4 million a year to ``learn to utilize the underemployed in the state,'' says executive director Henry Woodbridge.

But Carnivale and others expect American corporations to dodge the issue and continue pulling workers from traditional labor pools, until those pools dry up.

Many companies already spend large amounts upgrading their employees. IBM says it spent about $700 million last year for on-the-job, though not remedial, instruction. ``Every workday, 10,000 workers leave their regular jobs to attend some kind of training,'' says spokesman Edward Stobbey.

Xerox spent $220 million on training, and Texas Instruments says it schools each employee 10 days a year.

Several sources say US companies spend a total of about $30 billion a year on formal training, though there are many that provide no such assistance.

For these, and all employers, teaching employees how to read and write is an expensive and often exasperating task. ``You can't teach new skills to those who don't even have the basics,'' says Frank Barnett, assistant director of the US Department of Education's Adult Literacy Initiative.

Primary training in addition to retraining programs can run up a bill as high as $225 billion a year, says the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy at Pennsylvania State University. The cost of not helping these people, however, for employers ``is increased errors, lower productivity, and lost potential of employees,'' says James Wall, at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Group, in Connecticut. Mr. Wall is reinstating a much-needed employee high-school equivalency program that was disconnected several years ago after it ``put itself out of business.''

Author Jonathan Kozol estimates in his book ``Illiterate America'' that US corporations alone may forfeit $20 billion a year in lost profits, lower productivity, reduced international competitiveness, job immobility, and increased remedial training.

Companies that depend on more entry-level workers, recognizing the need to cultivate employees, have begun footing the bill for city literacy programs, or offering in-house courses to train illiterate workers or those who lack job-specific skills. General Motors Corporation, IBM, and United Technologies support job training centers that prepare people for basic positions.

Major firms like Chemical Bank, City Bank, the New York Times, and J.C. Penney are opening their cafeterias after hours to literacy workshops, like New York's Literacy Volunteers. ``They provide us with volunteers, fund raising, and technical assistance, and they print our newsletter,'' says director Eli Zal, ``and we get over $200,000 a year from over 85 companies, more than we do from federal, state, and local governments.''

Other companies, like American Telephone & Telegraph, work with a large percentage of employees for whom English is a second language. ``A dialect or pronunciation problem can lead to a misunderstanding that can lose your company thousands of dollars,'' says Burke Stinson at AT&T.

Some companies try to simplify their entry-level jobs, usually by mechanizing them. But this ``dumbing down,'' as some educators call it, ``means you can only hold onto a few people at the low level, and the next step is one they'll never ever pass,'' says Dr. Mikulecky at Indiana University.

Many uneducated workers are afraid to try to move up, lest their illiteracy be discovered and they lose their jobs, says Mr. Wall at Pratt & Whitney. Often, if they can't catch on quickly and keep up with everyone else, ``they either quit or end up getting fired, and then they lose confidence in themselves,'' says Gerald Ogren, plant manager at Outboard Marine Corporation, in Lincoln, Neb.

``We're neglecting the noncollege-bound by not giving them options. ... The curriculum isn't relevant to half the kids, because it's made up by college graduates who still think vocational and technical education is for problem kids,'' Mr. Ogren says. ``The kids who do come in here with vocational training have a grasp of the fundamentals that we can really nurture.''

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