Magazine article Management Review

Nonprofits Tackle a Nationwide Crisis

Magazine article Management Review

Nonprofits Tackle a Nationwide Crisis

Article excerpt

What seemed like a routine assignment for workers at granite plant in Barre, Vermont-picking up needed machine parts at another area of the factory and bringing them back to their own workstations-turned out to be a job few workers wanted. The assignment went begging because many of the employees were unable to complete the required requisition form. So all too often, for want of a part, the machines stopped. When the plant, Sprague Electric, closed its Vermont operation several years ago, many of the foreign-born workers, some of whom had been there for 30 or 40 years, had difficulty finding new jobs. They couldn't read or write well enough to fill out employment application forms.

Situations like these are not isolated cases."The problem is becoming much more visible," claims Mary Leahy, a policy team member of Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, a 23-year-old nonprofit agency in Vermont. Jobs that used to be available for people with low reading and writing skills are vanishing."

Although a good deal of attention has been focused on the global problem-one-fourth of the world's adult population is illiterate today and the United Nations has proclaimed 1990 "International Literacy Year"literacy is an American problem as well. The figures are staggering. Although the number of totally illiterate adults is relatively small, the number of functionally illiterate adults is frightening. According to the New York City-based Business Council for Effective Literacy, 27 million adult Americans-one out of every five-can't read well enough to perform the basic requirements of everyday living and working. Another 45 million adults have only marginally competent basic skills.

A major study on adult literacy forcefully pinpointed the scope of the problem and called for greater action. There is no way in which the United States can maintain the health of its economy, fend off foreign competition, improve productivity and, in general, maintain its standard of living unless we substantially increase the skills of the workforce," notes Forrest Chisman, project director of the Southport Institute for Policy Analysis, in the 1989 study. National nonprofit organizations have been quick to tackle the issue, and now, companies concerned with the grim picture have become increasingly involved. Gannett Co., Dayton-Hudson Corp. and IBM have provided major funding for literacy programs while Polaroid Corp., Ford Motor Co. and others have developed significant employee basic skills programs. One corporate literacy effort, Time Inc.'s Time to Read," began as an in-house employee volunteer activity and now operates as a national program in 29 cities.

A leader in the business effort has been the Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL), founded in 1983 by Harold W. McGraw, Jr., then chairman and now chairman emeritus of McGraw-Hill Inc. BCEL, a publicly supported foundation, publishes a newsletter on adult literacy as well as monographs, bulletins and special resource materials aimed at the business community; provides technical assistance to companies and executives; organizes and participates in literacy-related meetings and maintains a national data base on literacy.

A BCEL booklet, "Functional Illiteracy Hurts Business," addresses the question of what your company can do about the problem with an eight-point agenda and cites specific examples of corporate action in each of the areas of involvement.

We are pleased that businesses have become more aware of the adult basic skills problem and are getting involved in literacy efforts in their communities and in their workplaces," says Paul Jurmo, senior program associate, BCEL. "But literacy efforts are currently hampered by a quick fix' mentality that ignores what is needed to operate effective adult basic education programs. Good programs require carefully tailored curricula, qualified instructors and sufficient time for learners to really improve their skills. …

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