"Workplace illiteracy" is considered a business and social problem when workers are not able to read or write well enough to function optimally on the job. While illiteracy occurs in many fields, it is most prevalent among clerical and traditional blue-collar industrial workers. Contrary to popular perceptions, illiteracy in the workplace is not solely a result of large numbers of immigrants in the work force. Moreover, while the perception of illiteracy in the workplace has increased recently it does not mean that employees of the past were more literate or better educated.
Strictly defined, illiteracy means the inability to read and write. Nuanced definitions take into account the context and purpose of the reading task; simple tasks may only require recognizing individual printed words, whereas complex skills involve comprehending the words and logic of a substantial piece of prose. Some experts would include the inability to perform simple arithmetic, a deficiency also labeled "innumeracy." Together these rudimentary language and math abilities are often described collectively as "basic skills."
Some studies have reported that the basic skills deficit in the workplace is widespread and costly. According to statistics published in 1998 by the National Institute for Literacy, a federal agency established by the National Literacy Act of 1991, businesses lose more than $60 billion annually—an amount comparable to Mobil Corporation's 1997 worldwide revenues—because of skill deficiencies.
According to a United Nations survey of worldwide adult literacy, of the 158 participating nations, the United States ranks 49th. In 1992 the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics conducted a National Adult Literacy Survey to assess the depth and breadth of literacy problems in the United States. The survey suggested that 20 percent or more of U.S. adults possess no better than a fifth-grade reading capacity.
There is some general agreement on what constitutes functional illiteracy—reading and writing below the sixth grade level. In 1993, the Education Department determined that as many as 30 percent of unskilled and semiskilled industrial workers (approximately 14 million) were below even a fourth grade level of reading and writing. This would make it almost impossible to read required safety manuals, product labels, and even written warning signs. A commonly cited incident involved an apparently illiterate worker taking a cigarette break: unable to read the danger sign on the door of an empty room, the worker set off a lethal explosion after he entered the room and ignited his cigarette.
Since a high school level of literacy is usually necessary in order to read newspapers and magazines fluently, some experts insist that anyone who reads and writes below secondary school level is functionally illiterate. If one accepts this broad definition of functional illiteracy, then as many as 72 million adults are affected, making functional illiteracy a truly gargantuan problem in this country. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that the highest levels of functional illiteracy can be found among the young, specifically, in the 18- to 30-year-old age bracket.
The majority of this age group has already entered the workplace or hopes to become employed. Job applications have exposed the high level of illiteracy in the current adult population. Estimates by the National Institute for Literacy reckon that as much as 75 percent of the unemployed have literacy shortcomings. In the state of Nevada, it was estimated in 1994 that two out of three recently hired employees had at most an eighth-grade reading level. In 1990, Southwestern Bell received 15,000 job applications; of these applicants only 800 could pass the company's basic skills test.
Illiteracy—which in this essay will be considered functional illiteracy—has always existed in this country and cannot be blamed on immigrant labor. The industrial manufacturing sector of the economy has been employing immigrants since the early 19th century. While newly arrived immigrants for the most part read and write English poorly or not at all, the majority—over 50 percent—are literate in their own native languages and do not require literacy programs as much as they do ESOL (short for English for Speakers of Other Languages) training.
Hence at the heart of the illiteracy problem in this country is rapidly changing technology, and most importantly, the computerization of business and industry. As recently as the 1960s, what mattered in most industrial jobs was physical endurance. More recently, automation has reduced physical labor and increased the need for semiskilled labor to operate and maintain the equipment that actually completes the manufacturing tasks.
It is not only computerization that has changed the workplace, however. Thirty years ago, business and industry for the most part had to contend only with domestic competitors. With trade barriers falling all over the globe, international competition has grown intense. Only the most streamlined, costefficient, and quality-conscious companies will survive and make a profit. Competition from Japan in particular has compelled American businesses to become more productive and create new products. Moreover, the internal structures of many businesses are changing. For decades, a company would be neatly divided between managers, who did the thinking, and the rank-and file-employees, who carried out management's ideas and plans. Nowadays, input and, especially, creative thinking are sought at all levels. Many believe meeting these challenges necessitates a literate, if not highly literate, work force.
A Senate Labor Committee report in 1990 maintained that while a fourth-grade education had always been sufficient for most skilled and unskilled jobs since World War II, current working conditions demanded that high school or the equivalent be the new minimum required level of education for the marketplace. Unfortunately, nearly 2 million students graduating from high schools annually are functionally illiterate. To American business and industry, which must pay high property taxes to support the public education system, this is a frustrating reality.
How is it that students can graduate from high school while reading and writing far below the 12th grade level? One reason is that students are often automatically promoted to the next grade even if they have not learned to read. Additionally, more innercity students graduate functionally illiterate than do students at suburban schools. Hence illiteracy is also caused by economic disparity and social breakdown; students who have not learned to read very often come from broken and impoverished homes. Students from minority groups are far more likely to be semiliterate than whites. At least 40 percent of minorities under 18 are believed to be functionally illiterate. Educational studies have failed to prove that merely keeping a student behind a grade or two has helped him or her learn to read.
Despite the problems illiteracy poses, few employees seek out the help offered by literacy programs, even if they are free and easily accessible. This phenomenon has been closely studied by literacy experts, who posit that the social stigma of illiteracy is far greater than it is for drug or alcohol abuse. Moreover, should an older man or woman enroll in a literacy class, more often than not, he or she has to use materials geared for high school or even grade schoolaged children, clearly inappropriate for older adults. Lastly, even if he or she is lucky to have adult-level learning materials, an illiterate person is often daunted at the length of time it takes to learn to read fluently—often several years, sometimes even longer. For this reason alone, most adults who are functionally illiterate bluff their way through their job by greatly exaggerating their reading and writing abilities.
Where rank-and-file employees are poorly educated and reluctant to seek out the help of communitybased literacy programs, companies are increasingly looking inward for solutions. As of 1995, U.S. businesses spent an estimated $53 billion each year on all forms of training, including basic skills programs. That's on top of approximately $1.3 billion (1997 figure) invested each year in adult literacy programs by federal and state agencies. Not only do these programs attempt to reach functionally illiterate workers, but also those who have been on the job for years and need to upgrade their job knowledge and skills (which often includes literacy).
Currently, at least one in five organizations (businesses as well as nonprofit concerns) sponsor and pay for programs that teach basic literacy skills. This translates into only 20 percent of organizations with a minimum work force of 100 employees. Of the 80 percent without such programs, almost all require testing to ensure job applicants have the appropriate, jobrelated skills. Most companies want to weed out the semiliterate applicants and hire only those who are fully qualified, although some believe this is increasingly becoming a luxury. According to some labor data, to pass up intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious applicants because of deficient skills hazards the risk of running out of applicants altogether. This was the conclusion in 1987 of the farsighted chairman of Xerox Corp., David Kearns, who acknowledged even then the necessity of hiring unqualified employees if the company was to expand. According to Kearns, businesses throughout the United States could end up hiring upwards of one million entry-level employees annually who were unable to read or write. More recent figures support Kearns' prognosis: between 1995 and 1998 government statistics recorded a surge in the number of companies suffering shortages of skilled labor.
The larger the company, the more apt it is to implement some kind of on-the-job training to combat declining skills, including the fundamentals—basic reading, writing, and math skills. Polaroid led the way in establishing the first on-the-job basic skills program in the early 1970s. Since then, other companies have followed. Nonetheless, 90 percent of American companies still lack such job training programs. An exception is Hershey Foods in Pennsylvania, which automatically sends any employee without a high school diploma to GED classes; it also provides employees desiring extra math and science training with tutors. In 1993, more than half of the 1,340 firms in Illinois responded positively on a questionnaire asking if their employees needed to upgrade their skills—but only 24 percent of these firms offered training courses.
The cost of implementing such programs can be prohibitive. Start-up costs can range anywhere from as low as $2,500 to a high of $100,000. Not all companies can afford to pour into basic literacy programs the $35 million that Motorola, Inc. had expended by 1993. By then, Motorola had decided that the time had come to turn away job applicants whose reading and writing skills fell below the seventh-grade level. While even an eighth-grade literacy level increasingly disqualifies one for the growing demands of the work place, training employees at this level requires much less time, and therefore, saves the company more money.
When Magnavox was faced with an increase in the number of immigrants seeking and obtaining work in the early 1990s, the firm installed a pilot literacy program that also included English as a second language courses. To mitigate the prohibitive cost of this program, Magnavox turned to the Department of Education's National Workplace Literacy Program for matching grant funds (the Education Department allocates the funds to the states, which in turn make them available to qualified applicants). In this way, the pilot program became a permanent success story emulated by other companies. However, the state governments administering the literacy grants are overwhelmed with applications each year, leading to stiff competition. Between fiscal years 1990-94, the budget for literacy programs in the state of Illinois alone increased from $ 119,000 to nearly half a million dollars, but the number of grant applications still exceeded the budget.
The literacy program at Magnavox initially offered only evening classes, but the company discovered, not surprisingly, that employees were far more encouraged to take the classes if they were conducted during work time. Despite the time lost in productivity, the long-term gain to the company offset the loss. Other innovations have included tapes of adult-level reading material, which students listen to until they can recognize and read the corresponding text, and interactive computer software that simulates the work environment and challenges some adults to overcome their fear of computers. What used to take several years to master in some cases can now take as little as ten months. Workplace literacy programs offered during work hours have provided the most effective incentive to eradicate serious as well as functional illiteracy, when compared to community-based programs.
So many benefits accrue to companies that implement successful on-the-job literacy training programs that they become a form of investment, rather than an extraneous expense. For instance, there are improvements in job morale, in company loyalty (reducing the employee turnover rate), and in overall productivity.
Davis, Mack. "Getting Workers Back to the Basics." Training & Development, October 1997.
Hull, Glynda A., ed. Changing Work, Changing Workers: Critical Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Skills. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.
National Institute for Literacy. "Fact Sheet: Workforce Literacy." Washington, 1998. Available from www.nifl.gov .