Closing the gap between workers' skills and jobs. Bosses step in with books as job sophistication grows

American workers are not keeping pace with the demands of tomorrow's jobs. That's the conclusion that many states are reaching as evidence piles up of poor reading and math skills in the workplace. In close alliance with businesses, state governments are trying to turn things around. For example:

In January, Virginia passed a new budget that will boost adult education spending from $22,000 a year to $2.2 million.

Eight months since it formed a committee to encourage basic skills education in the workplace, Illinois is starting to see businesses and labor unions respond.

Today Michigan will announce an ambitious state adult education effort. (See next page.)

These and other public initiatives are starting to attract the attention of many businesses.

``It makes sense to business,'' Illinois Secretary of State Jim Edgar says. ``They're going to benefit if their employees have the skills and the ability to be retrained.''

At all nine biscuit manufacturing plants of RJR Nabisco Inc., for example, workers are offered classes to improve reading, communication, and math skills. ``It is up to companies to prepare their employees for the future,'' says Mary Ellen Bilotta, training coordinator at Nabisco's Chicago plant. ``It is a way for us to become more competititve.''

What has awakened businesses to the need for worker education is the appearance of what educators call the skills gap.

On the one hand, jobs are getting more sophisticated. Last June, a study for the US Department of Labor found that between now and the year 2000, for the first time in US history, more than half of all new jobs will require more than a high school education.

But workers available to take those jobs will have less training than current employees. According to the labor report, minorities, women, and immigrants - people with generally less work experience than the current work force - will make up more than 80 percent of the net additions to the labor pool before the year 2000. Today, they make up only about half of the work force.

This skills gap is costing businesses a lot of money. In Rockford, Ill., a metals finishing company recently calculated that one of its employees cost the company $12,000 in one month because he couldn't read instructions properly, a local literacy liaison says.

Often, the problem is not that workers cannot read but that their reading, math, and communications skills are not keeping up with the demands of new technology. When an Atlanta utility recently installed a computer communications system in its trucks, much of it was rendered useless because several foremen couldn't operate the computer key pads, says Verne Pulling, president of a community-based training program.

Overall, the skills gap costs US business up to $20 billion a year in lost profits, low productivity, retraining, and lack of international competitiveness, says Jonathan Kozol, author of ``Illiterate America.''

State governments are particularly interested in cooperating with businesses to retrain workers. Such workplace programs reach people who opted out of the state's education system. In addition, since little new adult education money is expected from the federal government, states see business-funded programs as a new resource. Some states, such as Vermont, have worked quietly along these lines since the early 1980s. But most states have become active only in the last two years or so, adult education advocates say.

``In the past, it just sort of happened,'' says Jeannie Baliles, wife of Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, of her state's push for literacy. But ``it makes much more sense to bring our resources together.'' Mrs. Baliles heads Virginia's private-sector literacy effort, which is starting to work closely with its public-sector counterpart.

The biggest challenges lie in the smaller companies, these advocates say. Small companies employ the bulk of the nation's workers but don't have the resources to do their own training. This is where the coordination of public and private resources will be key, literacy advocates say.

In Illinois, when one literacy program held a meeting in tiny Morrisonville last fall, 30 of the community's 31 businesses participated. The lone nonparticipant was just as interested, says literacy coordinator Sarah Watson, but ``she was the only employee and she didn't want to close the store.''

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