As you begin to read this post, consider for a moment that many working-age adults in Northeast Ohio do not have the literacy skills to fully comprehend the next few paragraphs. Such a state of affairs has far-reaching implications—not only for these individuals’ wellbeing, but for our region’s economy—and must be addressed if we are to sustain our recovery.
There has been much discussion lately about the so-called “skills gap,” or disconnect between available jobs and available workers. Many employers bemoan that there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill open positions.
Indeed, as Jill Rizika, executive director of Towards Employment, noted in the Fund for Our Economic Future’s recent Call to Action, an astounding 46 percent of Ohio adults (ages 18 to 64)—or 3.3 million—have no education past high school. That’s worse than 35 other states. About 25 percent of this group never graduated from high school. Additionally, many workers with postsecondary education have found themselves out of a job and in need of new skills to succeed in our transitioning economy.
A talented workforce is the new currency for competitiveness in the global economy. High-wage, high-skill jobs in sectors like business services accounted for 50 percent of the job growth in Northeast Ohio over the past three years. This trend is of course beneficial to the region, but it also suggests that the jobs our region is creating aren’t available to many people living in our communities who need them. As the Call to Action pointed out, entire neighborhoods across the region suffer from low levels of labor force participation; they’ve essentially been left out of the recovery. And some of the most acute employer needs are for middle-skill positions, such as health technicians and welders. But even mid-skill jobs can be out of reach for those with low literacy skills.
We cannot have a conversation about our region’s workforce—how to improve it, how to better connect it to available jobs—without first talking about literacy.
To better prepare our workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow, we need to start early and with the basics. A 2012 report by The Annie E. Casey Foundation found a critical link between third grade reading levels and high school graduation rates. Children who cannot read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to never graduate from high school than proficient readers; for those without basic literacy skills by third grade, the rate rises to nearly six times greater. When you combine poor literacy skills with poverty, well, the chances for graduation are even worse.
Third Federal Foundation (the foundation I run), along with The Literacy Cooperative and others, have been sounding the horn on this issue for some time. Several efforts in Northeast Ohio that are focused on improving literacy skills—SPARK, MindPlay Virtual Reading Coach and the STEP community volunteer tutoring program, to name a few—have been successful.
More must be done to strengthen and scale such efforts.
We must also do more to connect with potential workers at an even younger age, well before high school, to ensure literacy rates improve and skill development is in line with the skills needed to fill future jobs. The K-12 pipeline must be improved. At the same time, we need to address low-literate adults, who are often the parents of these young children.
Ultimately, we must implement a two-generational strategy to increase educational attainment over the long term, while also increasing low-literate adults’ access to jobs in the near term.
One promising new effort that’s poised to enable community members with low literacy levels and/or a lack of educational credentials to be matched with jobs for which they would previously not qualify is Skills-based Hiring. This program works with employers to implement a skills-competency assessment as an employment screen, rather than relying primarily on educational criteria. It also provides opportunities for workers to improve their skills to qualify for available jobs. First piloted in New Mexico, the program has had great success. Now, the Fund and many others are helping to bring Skills-based Hiring to Northeast Ohio.
We know we can’t do any of this in isolation. K-12 school systems, nonprofits, literacy groups, workforce intermediaries, higher education institutions, employers—all must work together to address literacy.
But first, we must get down to basics: acknowledging the crisis exists.
 Hernandez, D. (2012). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation.