Adult Education and Family Literacy Week:
Building the Skills and Education of America's Adult Workforce for a Better Economy

During this past week, workforce groups from all over the nation have been highlighting the importance of adult education programs in providing opportunities for low-income and low-skilled Americans. Adult Education and Family Literacy Week underscores the vital need for adult education programs, so that any American who works hard can gain the training and education they need to improve their lives. These programs are important to a just and prosperous society and warrant sustained investment and innovation.

Research shows that employer demand for educated workers is growing—by 2018, 63 percent of all employment will require at least some college education. Yet in 2010, over 15 million adults ages 25 years and older had less than a high school degree (Table 2). Education remains one of the most important factors in determining an individual’s well-being, as well as that of their children, but basic skills deficiencies prevent many adults from navigating higher education and the workplace and affect their ability to thrive, especially in hard economic times. In August 2011 14.3 percent of those without a high school diploma were unemployed, compared with 8.2 percent of those with at least some college.

For many of these low-skilled adults, the adult education system is the primary source for opportunities for skill upgrading. Adult education provides literacy and numeracy services, GED preparation, English language proficiency, and other services to help adults not only gain basic skills to succeed in further higher education, but also to enter career paths that lead to family sustaining wages. According to the new census data, the median annual earnings in 2010 for adults 25 years and older with less than a high school degree was $25,856, where those with a bachelor’s degree earned $55,804. Research has also shown that for each year of postsecondary education, an adult is more likely to be employed, lead a healthier life, and have children who are better prepared to succeed in their own schooling.

More skilled workers are critical for businesses and the economy, too. Sixty-one percent of U.S. employers say it is difficult to find qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies. More skilled workers would not only allow employers to fill jobs in sectors important to local and regional economies, but workers would also contribute more to the overall economy by expending their earned wages—over a lifetime, workers with at least a high school diploma will contribute at least $300,000 more than high school drop outs. In the current fiscal crisis plaguing the nation, low educational attainment coupled with increased demand for skilled workers has negative consequences for individuals, states, and our economic recovery as a whole.

The recession and subsequent jobless recovery are accelerating the shift to jobs that require postsecondary education, but public funding for education, training, and support services has been inadequate with growing need. Federal adult education under Title II of the Workforce Investment Act provides for basic skills instruction to 2.4 million undereducated adults – but that is just three percent of the 93 million American adults with low basic skills. Not only have these programs endured a decade of decimation in their federal funding, but state fiscal crises are further reducing funding and hindering alignment of adult education and workforce development services. Without targeted strategies to educate more low-skilled Americans as demand for skills grows, the U.S. will continue to lag behind in measures of educational attainment and economic competitiveness.

Fortunately, a number of states, including Illinois, have recognized the need for building the skills of the workforce, and have launched pioneering approaches to reach low-income and low-skilled adults. Bridge programs are an innovative strategy that helps adults succeed in education by integrating basic skills instruction, which is contextualized to a particular industry or occupation, with higher-level academic content or technical skills training. The Shifting Gears Initiative, funded by the Joyce Foundation, has spearheaded bridge model creation and career pathways development in the state. You can learn more about specific bridge programs in Illinois and their outcomes here.

Chances are, you know someone who lacks a degree or who would benefit from developing more skills in math, reading, or English language to help them find a job, or a better job. You can help support that person and raise awareness of the importance of adult education. Here are many ways you can get involved and make a difference in the lives of adult learners.  

This post was coauthored by Jessica Palek.

 

 

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