Whatever Happened to Workplace Literacy?


James Parker
Research & Policy Associate
Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy

From 1989 until 1998, the U.S. Department of Education administered the National Workplace Literacy Demonstration Program. During that period, over $130 million supported some 300 projects in which adult education programs partnered with thousands of businesses, agencies, and organizations to provide work-based skills to employees. While most of the grants went to local Adult Education programs, several state programs received multi-year funding.

When the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) was passed in 1998, many expected Workplace Literacy to expand and grow. But in most states, this apparently was not the case. In the first year of WIA Title II implementation, the National Reporting System (NRS) indicated that 100,000 adults were enrolled in such programs nationwide. By 2008 it was only 20,000, and last year only 7,000 adults were being served.

Why has Workplace Literacy not persisted as a priority in most states? Discussions with the states about this suggest many reasons: For one thing, workplace education has had limited support at the national level, having been replaced as a “workforce investment” priority by pre-employment efforts such as college and career readiness. For another, NRS specifications, such as the “12-hour rule”, mean that many workplace literacy courses and programs, such as 10-hour classes in blueprint reading, are not reported nationally.

But maybe there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Could it be that workplace literacy services are still being offered in greater numbers around the country, but not counted because they are not administered under WIA Title II programs? Is it possible that a significant number of workplace literacy programs are being funded by state and local Adult Education programs, but just not reported to the NRS?

As we look ahead, it’s clear that Workplace Literacy is a priority for Congress. And pending WIA reauthorization bills emphasize Adult Education service to incumbent workers. If and when that legislation passes, states would be required to measure and report “service to employers.”

CAAL would be interested in hearing from its readers about workplace programs they’re involved in or know about, and we would also welcome your thoughts about advancing the role of adult education in workplace education partnerships, especially for lower skilled adults.

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