National Coalition for Literacy seeks to raise adult literacy awareness

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 | 9:22 p.m. CDT
Stacey Blodgett and Sandy Sunderland write about a time when they influenced someone's opinion at the Pathways to Partnerships workshop on Oct. 14, 2008. Pathways to Partnerships aims to educate employers and other community members about workplace literacy.

COLUMBIA — Adult education and literacy issues don't typically have the razzle-dazzle that gets news media and Congress talking. That's exactly why Lynn Selmser, policy director for the National Coalition for Literacy, said her group was in Columbia on Tuesday.

"Washington hasn't recognized the importance of adult education and literacy," Selmser said. "It's not sexy."

The coalition, in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, gathered leaders from around the state Tuesday for Pathways to Partnerships, a conference that addressed the affect of low literacy in Missouri's workforce.

More than 70 adult educators, business leaders, academics and others attended the conference. The goal of the conference, said Taylor Willingham, the coalition's conference facilitator, was to encourage attendees to identify how low workforce literacy rates affect America's workplaces, and together craft an advocacy plan they may all use to raise awareness of the country's low-literacy issues.

Ron Jewell, the Education Department's adult education and literacy director, said there isn't a lot of data on the specific literacy levels of Missouri residents. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, is that approximately 790,000 of Missouri adults did not have a high school diploma or GED. Such numbers received more attention in the past year, as businesses have begun talking about the significance of low adult education and literacy levels.

"The jobs of the future, and a great number of existing jobs, demand some type of post-secondary education," Jewell said. "Businesses have realized this, and that their employees aren't meeting those demands."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26 of America's 30 fastest-growing job categories require some type of post-high school education or training. Within the next decade, the U.S. will be short 12 million workers who have obtained this level of education, according to National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.

Jennifer Maloney, the coalition's director, said the nation is facing shortages of those workers because the vast majority of the nation's workforce isn't made up of recent high school and college graduates. It's made up of people who've already been in the workforce for years.

In addition to advocating for more attention and funds for adult education and literacy programs, Jewell said the conference was also an important opportunity for businesses and adult educators to discuss what skills their employees are lacking. That way, adult educators may begin to customize their programs to meet employers' needs. Such discussions are vital, because as more businesses realize how increased efforts to educate the nation's adult population will benefit their business, they'll be willing to fund more employee education programs, he said.

Adult education programs serve a variety of the workforce's needs. Jewell said Missouri's programs help adults who want to obtain a GED, increase their technology skills, improve their general literary skills and take English-as-a-second-language courses. There's always the potential to expand these programs, though, he said.

"Will adult education grow?" Selmser asked as she ended a speech on promoting adult literacy in legislation. "It can when legislatures, the economy, communities and the individual recognize the impact it's already having on them."

Columbia is the final location for the conference. Since 2006, similar one-day regional conferences have been held to raise public awareness workforce literary in Nashville, Tenn., Phoenix, Baltimore, Spartanburg, S.C., and Houston.

Participants are asked to write down their personal goals during an afternoon workshop at Pathways to Partnerships, an event about workplace literacy.

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