Coming US challenge: a less literate workforce

US workers may be significantly less literate in 2030 than they are today.

The reason: Most baby boomers will be retiring and a large wave of less-educated immigrants will be moving into the workforce. This downward shift in reading and math skills suggests a huge challenge for educators and policymakers in the future, according to a new report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

If they can't reverse the trend, then it could spell trouble for a large swath of the labor force, widen an already large skill gap, and shrink the middle class.

"There is no time that I can tell you in the last hundred years" where literacy and numeracy have declined, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and one of the report's authors. "But if you don't change outcomes for a wide variety of groups, this is the future we face."

The decline in literacy is one of the more startling projections in a report that examines what it calls a "perfect storm" of converging factors and how those trends are likely to play out if left unchecked.

The three factors identified are: a shifting labor market increasingly rewarding education and skills, a changing demographic that include a rapid-growing Hispanic population, and a yawning achievement gap, particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines, when it comes to reading and math.

The individual trends have been identified before, but this study makes an effort to examine their combined effects, and to project a disturbing future, including a sharply declining middle class in addition to the lost ground in literacy.

"We have the possibility of transforming the American dream into the American tragedy," says Irwin Kirsch, a senior research director at ETS and the lead author of the study.

Ringing the alarm

He and the other researchers emphasize they're not saying the US is in any danger of collapse, or even that this grim scenario will come true. What they hope to do, they say, is call attention to urgent issues that affect not just many Americans' lifestyle, but the sort of democracy based on an informed middle class that the country was founded on.

"I hope it's viewed as an important warning sign," says Kurt Landgraf, president of ETS. "It's important for society to take notice of what's going on here in a macro way."

One factor that's been gaining increasing attention lately is the changing economic rewards in an economy in which demand for manufacturing and lower skilled labor is declining. It's become tougher for workers without higher education – or higher cognitive skills – to get the sort of job that can support a family.

But exacerbating the changes such an economic shift is causing are demographic factors, researchers say. Baby boomers are retiring and being replaced by less-skilled workers. A combination of immigration and population growth means that the share of the population that is Hispanic is expected to grow from 14 percent in 2005 to more than 20 percent by 2030. More than half of the immigrant Hispanics lack a high school diploma.

"Many immigrants enter [the US] without being able to read or speak English," says Mr. Landgraf. "Instead of forcing people to hide from the government infrastructure, we should be finding ways to include them in our society and help them bridge the language gap."

Turning to education

He and others suggest increasing attention and resources to early childhood education, to the social factors that affect young children, to continuing adult education, and to programs that keep kids from dropping out of school and address the achievement gap.

Some groups are already focusing on the issues, occasionally in surprising political coalitions.

Later this month, the US Chamber of Commerce – along with the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative American Enterprise Institute – plans to release a report card grading states on their K-12 education in nine categories, together with an action agenda, says Arthur Rothkopf, a senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce.

Solidarity with the Center for American Progress is unusual for his agency, he notes, "but we have to get the message out."

Like the ETS researchers, Mr. Rothkopf is particularly concerned about the growing mismatch of skills and workplace demands, and what that means for Americans' standard of living.

"We need to really rethink what we do," he says. "Hopefully this report among others will continue the drum beat."

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