Building a Stronger Foundation for Growth by Investing in Hidden Talent


Now more than ever, it’s time to recognize that expanding job skills is everyone’s business.

As President Donald Trump moves forward with his pledge to rebuild America’s infrastructure, we’re going to need more workers. And as the nation looks to rebuild the American middle class, we’re going to need more people who are workforce-ready to support it.

But we find ourselves in a difficult holding pattern.

Millions of potential adult workers lack the very basic literacy and numeracy skills required to take the beginning steps that will open the path to higher-paying, family-sustaining wages. Many are unable to even read basic help-wanted ads -- and even if they can, they are often passed over for higher-paying jobs because they lack a high school diploma. And while unemployment has dropped to historic lows, those with low literacy skills are employed by bouncing from low-paying job to low-paying job, unable to make a family-sustaining wage. America’s leaders would do well to acknowledge that traditional community colleges and universities, regardless of cost, remain out of reach for more than 36 million adults in this country because would-be students don’t have the basic high school equivalency qualifications to get started.

In terms of the cost of continuing education, fewer than 1.5 million adults a year are getting the help they need to dig their way out of poverty. Many times, the cycle of intergenerational poverty and low literacy continues unabated, and children, families, and communities continue to suffer.

These Americans lacking basic literacy skills are workers desperately needed by today's employers, experiencing barriers to entry into the workforce to access the opportunity that is available. We call this "hidden talent." 

We Need All Talent Career Ready

Skills-based jobs across industries, where a college or even high school degree is not required, are waiting. A recent Labor Department study found that employers can’t hire the masonry workers, plumbers, electricians, or roofers they need. The gap is widening, and there aren’t enough workers ready to lay the bricks, pour the concrete, or wire the networks of new-tech solar power and high-speed data.

America ranks below the international average in literacy, per a 2016 analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics; the U.S. ranks in the 50th percentile in number skills, according to Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies data. And we’re dead last for problem-solving in that same international survey.

Teachers and administrators, like those of us at the Coalition on Adult Basic Education, are confident that we can train more people to work in America. We provide wraparound services, support, and soft skills development, in addition to literacy, numeracy, science, and social studies education. A number of our programs around the country partner with apprenticeship programs and workforce development boards so when an adult learner emerges from the program he or she has a guaranteed job.

Now more than ever, it’s time to recognize that expanding job skills is everyone’s business. In some areas, colleges, schools, and nonprofits have long been pitching in; new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act dollars are a good start. But much more is needed.

Investing one dollar in adult education, helping to end intergenerational poverty cycles, can save 50 or 60 times more in social services, legal fees, and public healthcare costs. School districts and nonprofits who face stretched budgets can look at innovative ways to bundle reading classes with bus passes or skills courses with childcare. Private businesses can consider providing basic education and job training to adults regardless of where those women and men end up employed, like we see with Amazon and SC Johnson.

These are all models that lead to success for our annual state budgets and future economic growth. By offering the basics of adult education and training, our nation can be ready to rebuild infrastructure, build a bigger and stronger middle class, strengthen families, grow our businesses, and be ever more competitive in this complex global age.

What role will you play?