Connecting literacy to the workplace: A Q&A with Bob Paponetti

June 30, 2015

Bob Paponetti, Executive Director of Literacy Cooperative based in Cleveland Ohio, speaks with NSC about the importance of blending and contextualizing literacy learning to workplace skills.

What brought you to your position as executive director of the Literacy Cooperative? 

I’ve been involved in workforce development for many years, mostly as a provider helping people get the occupational skills that they need to get a job. At that point literacy wasn’t my main focus. During my time as Director of Workforce Development at ORION Consulting, if an applicant had the requisite literacy skills, we enrolled them into the program, and if they did not, we would refer them to a local literacy provider.

Later in my career I was the Director of Workforce Development for Cuyahoga County and as recipients of the Workforce Investment Act funding, we put people through workforce training. Again, if the applicant had the literacy skills needed, we enrolled them into the program and if not, we referred them to a partner adult literacy provider. This time under the one-stop system, our partner literacy provider was now in our building and instead of sending that trainee away, we could simply send them down the hall. While that was helpful, I realized that it wasn’t good enough.

I then became the Vice President of Workforce and Economic Development at Cuyahoga Community College. There, the issue of literacy really became much clearer on what a barrier it is for most people to access postsecondary education and training opportunities. At the community college we had great programs to help give people the skills they need to get the jobs that are in-demand in our community. Those programs have minimum reading and math requirements, yet we have a large segment of our population that has low reading and math skills that kept them from being able to participate in the program. We began experimenting with better models to connect literacy to technical and vocational training.

In Cleveland, a new program called The Literacy Cooperative was being formed to serve as a non-profit organization that could be an intermediary for literacy in our community and better connect the initiatives that are going on in Cleveland and in our county to help people get on career pathways. I decided to leave the college and become the first Executive Director of The Literacy Cooperative in December of 2007.

What do you feel has been your most meaningful accomplishment as Executive Director of The Literacy Cooperative?

The growing awareness of the low literacy issue and the community interest in getting involved in literacy solutions are among the biggest accomplishments. It wasn’t too long ago that I had to push my way into meetings in our community to talk about the need to better connect people with low literacy to workforce programs. Recently over the past year or two, I’m now being invited to come to meetings. I think people’s understanding of low literacy has really grown. I’m also excited to see in our community a lot of neighborhood revitalization and workforce development efforts. Now we are beginning to look at how we can help the people in those neighborhoods benefit from the economic development initiatives.

For years we’ve been hearing about the day we’ll have a skilled worker shortage in this country, due to Baby Boomers leaving the workforce en masse as they approached retirement. As a result of the economic downturn in 2008, workers didn’t or couldn’t retire. Well now it seems that is beginning to happen and employers are now starting to ask themselves how they can build a pipeline to replace workers who are retiring.

The Literacy Cooperative advocates for blending literacy learning with workforce training. Why is it important to connect literacy to workplace skills?

I also view this as one of our accomplishments that more and more people understand the need for blended literacy learning. For a person looking to improve their literacy skills, The Literacy Cooperative believes that the opportunity to connect to a job or a better job is a big motivating factor. The way the system typically works now, if you want to get into a workforce training program but don’t have the necessary reading or math skills, you will get referred to an adult literacy program. What I found over the course of my career and research, people may go to that literacy program but it’s very disconnected from what they ultimately want, which is a training program. They find themselves sitting in a classroom without any clear relevance to why they are there. By blending literacy with workplace training, we feel that it brings automatic relevancy.

In addition to blending literacy learning is contextualizing. This could include using the same language in the math activities that the person might see in the training program they want to get into. For example, if a student is doing math work using manufacturing terminology and manufacturing type problems, they can understand why they’re learning it. We’ve seen success in contextualized learning through pilots that we’ve done as well as in the research around the country. When you contextualize the literacy and then blend it into a technical and vocational program, it just makes more sense for people. We see much greater literacy gains in a shorter period of time than when the literacy is completely disconnected from the training program.

When did you first get involved with NSC, and why?

I’m a member of the Ohio Workforce Coalition, an organization that promotes good public policy that builds the skills of adult workers and also helps employers meet their skill needs. NSC’s field team is also active in the coalition, which enabled us to get connected and I was always impressed by the knowledge the NSC team brought to our meetings on the issue of workforce development.

I’ve since participated in a couple NSC webinars, which are always extremely helpful, and this past February I attended NSC’s Skill Summit, which was a great experience. The discussions were extremely beneficial and informative, and the Summit provided a valuable opportunity to connect and share with people from all over the country who are impressive experts in this field.

How does your connection to NSC help to inform your work in Ohio and/or your national literacy network?

NSC’s advocacy work surrounding career pathways and sector strategies helps our work here in Ohio. The way most career pathways are currently modeled, they begin at a level of literacy that many of the people I work with simply are not at. The opportunity to continue to learn from and provide input to NSC’s policy platform is very exciting.

NSC also plays a valuable role in reaching out to people around the country and soliciting input. I was asked to participate in a NSC-facilitated conference call earlier in the year when WIOA language came out so that people in the field can share their thoughts. NSC really listens to their comments and then communicates those thoughts and recommendations to policymakers.

I strongly encourage colleagues who are involved in literacy to be at the table, especially now with WIOA, and NSC provides an avenue to be a part of the conversation and create collective impact.