It’s Time to Give Workers Basic Skills

February 10, 2013

During his first term, President Barack Obama called for greater investments in the skills of our people — our young, our poor, men and women laid off after lifetimes of work — so they could participate in our country’s economic recovery. More recently, the president has called for comprehensive immigration reform, and here too, investments in new skills will be essential to help move 11 million people toward citizenship and full participation in our economy.

Some will see these as two different agendas. For those of us who know the struggles faced by low-income families in our inner cities, or day-laboring workers on the margins of our workforce, or millions of displaced workers who are trying to get back on a pathway to a new career, we know there is a thread that ties all of them together. Many of them are among the 88 million Americans who face barriers to obtaining new skills because they do not have the basic reading or math skills to succeed in a community college classroom or a vocational training program.

The president has opened more doors to college and post-secondary training than any president in 60 years, but too many people could not benefit. In his second term, starting with Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he must now commit to building the instructional pathways and on-ramps that will allow a more diverse U.S. workforce to realize the promise of a better life through a skilled career.

In his first State of the Union address, the president challenged every American to obtain at least one year of training past high school to improve their chances of success in a rapidly changing economy. But one thing stands in the way: Too many hard-working people — whether new immigrants, minimum wage earners or factory workers who have not seen a classroom in 20 or 30 years — do not have the basic reading and math skills to succeed in vocational training or post-secondary programs.

Right now we are barely making a dent in this problem. Fewer than 3 million individuals are served by federally funded adult basic education programs each year. In 49 states plus the District of Columbia, there are already 160,000 people on waiting lists for reading, math and English language instruction; this is more than double the number in 2008.

That leaves more than 85 million Americans without access to these programs. With immigration reform, the need for federally funded adult basic education will intensify as millions of undocumented immigrants will most likely be required to learn English as part of a path to citizenship. 

If Obama is serious about getting people back to work and growing the economy, he will call on Congress to finally deal with this fundamental challenge that prevents millions of workers from getting the credentials they need for the new jobs in our economy. Congress should set goals to significantly and meaningfully increase the number of adults served each year by programs that provide the reading, math and English language skills they need to succeed in vocational training or post-secondary education programs.

Immigration reform provides an opportunity for Congress to begin to address this problem. Some in the Senate are considering doubling or even quintupling the number of work visas issued to high-skilled immigrants. The visa fees generated by raising that ceiling could generate an additional $200 million to $1 billion that could go toward the reading, math and language instruction that would help an entire range of workers get on the pathway toward citizenship or new careers.

America has been a leading power in the world because of the hard work of its people. As our economy and jobs have shifted and require more advanced skills, our investments in workers must adapt. We can and we must provide the resources to overcome the barriers that millions — new citizens, disconnected youth, long-term unemployed workers or anyone who simply wants to do better — face to acquire the skills for the jobs employers are hiring for. That is a critical step in getting our country back to work and keeping our economic engine on track.

Andy Van Kleunen is executive director of the National Skills Coalition; Juan Salgado is president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino; Rob Carmona is co-founder of STRIVE International.